Experts Urge USAF to Hang on to the Bombers, Invest in Long-Range Systems

A B-2 Spirit from the 509th Bomb Wing approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 351st Aerial Refueling Squadron during the Bomber Task Force training exercise over the United Kingdom on Aug. 29, 2019. Air Force photo by SSgt. Jordan Castelan.

The Air Force should hold off on retiring any legacy bombers until B-21s are rolling off the assembly line in substantial numbers, and should generally invest in longer-range systems and enablers like tankers, according to the leaders of two studies that examined the force structure the Air Force will need in the next 20 years.

David Gerber, senior principal systems engineer with the MITRE Corp., said his company’s analysis recommends “no bomber retirements until substantial B-21 deliveries have occurred,” in about the 2035 timeframe. Air Force Global Strike Command has released a roadmap postulating that the B-1 and B-2 bombers would exit the inventory in the 2031-33 timeframe. To get full value out of the bombers, USAF should spend the sustainment money to achieve an 80 percent mission capable rate, which would translate into “30 additional bombers” worth of capability based on a fleet of 157 of the stealth aircraft, Gerber said Sept. 5 at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event on Capitol Hill.

Bombers can operate far from the reach of enemy sensors and missiles, and provide the Air Force with its most potent striking power as China’s air defenses advance, Gerber said. Fighters compelled to operate from islands closer to China’s periphery will be “vulnerable,” as will air refueling tankers, necessitating that the Air Force expand its operating locations across more airfields, he said. Tanker production should be extended “indefinitely” in order to expand the number of operating locations USAF can use and ensure that fighters can get to the fight, he said.

The MITRE study also verified the USAF position, in its “Air Force We Need” notional force structure announced last year, that the service needs more fighters. MITRE suggested that USAF buy a fighter variant of the T-X trainer now entering flight test, and use it for less-demanding missions such as homeland defense, thus “freeing up” more capable 4th- and 5th-generation fighters for combat in an overseas theater, he said. The aircraft should not be viewed as in lieu of the F-15EX added to the Air Force’s fiscal 2020 budget, but as part of a somewhat larger Air Force fighter fleet, he said. The “Air Force We Need” suggested increased fighter squadrons from 55 today to 62 by the mid-2020s, although MITRE posited 65 fighter squadrons in its analysis.

Gerber said MITRE urged a T-X derivative rather than an existing 4th-generation fighter because of expected sharply lower costs to operate the platform versus current aircraft.

Both studies were undertaken in answer to Congress’ direction that an independent analysis of USAF’s needs be undertaken to assess how big the service should be to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy, irrespective of the cost.

Mark Gunzinger of the Mitchell Institute, who discussed a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study of USAF force structure that he led, noted that the CSBA and MITRE studies, as well as USAF’s own internal evaluations, came up with similar recommended capabilities despite different assumptions and methodologies. The common necessary attributes were long range, high speed—which will come with hypersonic weapons—highly networked forces and “next generation” weapons that will themselves have more smarts, survivability and range, he said.

Gunzinger urged that the Air Force proceed rapidly toward a “next generation”—a term he preferred over “sixth generation”—fleet of survivable aircraft, saying that only the B-21 will be able to operate safely in anticipated “highly contested” air defense battlespace in the 2030s. Though the Air Force has been looking toward a force structure to bring to fruition in 2030, Gunzinger said new stealthy platforms—a Penetrating Counter-Air and Penetrating Electronic Attack aircraft, which probably “should be the same platform”—likely won’t enter the force before 2035.

He urged, however, that the Air Force not reduce its pace of acquisition of F-35s, and in fact should buy the fighters as quickly as possible to preserve an edge over rapidly improving adversaries. Both study leaders also urged the development of survivable multi-mission unmanned aircraft that could be used for kinetic as well as non-kinetic functions ranging from attack to surveillance. They also supported USAF’s plans to pursue “attritable” aircraft, which Lt. Gen. Timothy Fay, deputy chief of staff for requirements and strategy, defined as unmanned aircraft that are capable but inexpensive enough that the service could afford to lose them if the mission warranted a one-way trip.

Fay, speaking at the Sept. 4 Defense News conference, said he keeps both the CSBA and MITRE reports on his desk and that the Air Force is testing out their suggestions in further analysis. He declined to say what options the service is most strongly considering.