Why a nuclear-capable next-gen bomber is necessary

Some Congressmen have recently expressed doubts about a nuclear-capable next-generation bomber is needed and whether something else couldn’t act as a substitute. The purpose of this blogpost is to dispel such doubts.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), a defense weakling who supports defense cuts, tried to portray cruise missiles and unmanned stealthy aircraft as some kind of alternative to the NGB:

“We’ve got a penetrating bomber capability from the B-2s for several more decades, and we’ve got cruise missiles, we’ve got unmanned stealth strike aircraft. Why in the world do we need a next-generation bomber?”

Here’s why, Congressman.

Unmanned strike aircraft are no substitute because they don’t have the sufficient range, payload capability, degree of stealthiness, or other attributes that bombers, especially B-2 bombers, provide. Drones can only deliver tiny payloads (even smaller than those of short-range manned aircraft like the F-16) over short distances. By contrast, bombers can delivery huge payloads (the equivalent of the punch of hundreds of drones) over intercontinental distances, and B-2s can do so stealthily.

Cruise missiles are very expensive and have a short range compared to bombers. They are useful for, and cost-effective at, eliminating only a relatively small number of targets. If one needs to eliminate a large number of targets, especially fleeting ones, one needs bombers, because with a large number of targets it is much cheaper and therefore much more cost-effective to use bombers. General Charles “Chuck Horner”, who commanded USAF assets in the Gulf War and later in the 1990s, explains why:

“Cruise missiles are too expensive for sustained operations; cost was the reason Washington ordered me to stop firing Tomahawks during the Gulf War. The fortyfour cruise missiles fired at Iraq in September [1996] cost more than $100 million — 100 times more than an equivalent number of B-2-delivered precision guided munitions.”

See? Cruise missiles are too expensive for any kind of sustained operations, and the 44 cruise missiles fired at Iraq in September 1996 cost 100 times more than the equivalent number of guided bombs delivered by a B-2 would’ve cost ($1 mn). In other words, using B-2s and their guided munitions would’ve saved a lot of money – 99% of that cost, i.e. $99 mn. So procuring and using bombers instead of cruise missiles saves money.

Moreover, today the cost of a SINGLE Tomahawk missile is $1 mn. That means the cost of one such missile is the same as would’ve been the cost of bombing all 44 of these targets by B-2s.

Similarly, procuring and using NGBs instead of cruise missiles would, in the long run, save a lot of money. Cruise missiles are unaffordable in large quantities, and using them on large groups of targets is a waste of missiles and money. It’s much cheaper to have bombers drop precision ordnance on these targets. And in most plausible war scenarios, vis-a-vis most of its plausible enemies, the US military will have to eliminate large numbers of targets.

Moreover, the majority of the US military’s cruise missiles are nonstealthy (and therefore easily detectible and easy to intercept) and old, meaning they will have to be retired in the next decade.

He also explains why the decision to cut B-2 orders from 75 to 20 aircraft was a foolish mistake:

“In 1991, I returned from the Gulf convinced that tomorrow’s air commanders required — and would indeed have — a fleet of sixty or more long-range stealthy bombers. Inexplicably, the B-2 fleet was slashed from seventy-five to twenty, undermining our ability to employ a newly relevant strategy.”

And yet, the cut was made – AFTER the Gulf War, in 1992 – and was confirmed by the Clinton Administration despite the pleas of several former Secretaries of Defense from both parties.

And remember, Gen. Horner developed that conviction in 1991, 21 years ago. Since then, America’s enemies’ air defense systems have become much deadlier than in 1991, while their assets have been buried under thick concrete.

As for B-2s, although they are stealthy, their stealth technology is, as General Norton Schwartz has said, “80s vintage.” It was developed decades ago. With the next few decades, these aircraft will no longer be low-observable or undetectable for America’s enemies, and will therefore lose their stealth penetration capability. So if they are not complemented soon enough by NGBs, America will completely lose its long-range strike capability and its capability to enter enemy airspace undetected from large distances (and to deliver large payloads to protected targets), thus making it impossible for the US to win some wars and therefore to achieve its political objectives, as well as gutting the bomber leg of the nuclear triad, which will lose its stealth penetration capability.

Let’s listen to what General Schwartz says, shall we?

“While the 20 B-2s in service are capable aircraft, their stealth technology is “ ’80s vintage,” Schwartz replied.

“The reality is that the B-2 over time will become less survivable in contested airspace,” he said.

Schwartz went even further Feb. 29, saying the Air Force needs to improve its technology to meet potential threats from China and Iran.

“Do you think that the Chinese have established one of the world’s best air defense environments in their eastern provinces just to invest their national treasure — or, for that matter, that the Iranians have established integrated air defenses around certain locations in their country?” he said.

“I would say they are not doing this for the fun of it; they’re doing it because they have a sense of vulnerability. And I ask you: What is it that conveys that sense of vulnerability to others? One of those things is long-range strike and that is an asset that the United States of America should not concede, and that’s why [the] long-range strike bomber is relevant and will continue to be relevant.””

And 20 stealthy bombers is a tiny fleet, totally inadequate to meet the US military’s needs.

As Jamestown’s Dr Carlo Kopp writes:

“China’s air defense system is maturing into the largest, most capable and technically advanced in Asia, and will be capable of inflicting very heavy attrition on any aircraft other than upper tier U.S. stealth systems. Until the U.S. deploys its planned “New Generation Bomber” post-2020, the United States will have only 180 F-22 Raptors and 20 B-2A Spirit bombers capable of penetrating the PLA’s defensive shield. This may not be enough to act as a credible non-nuclear strategic deterrent.”

The NGB project’s opponents also claim that the planned cost of one bomber – $550 mn – is unaffordable and excessive. But that is actually a low price for one stealthy long-range bomber which, as stated above, will actually save money in the long run. It’s worth it. Opponents claim, however, that the USAF won’t be able to achieve such a low price and that the bomber type’s cost will balloon. They’re wrong.

As stated by the USAF’s top leaders, the bomber will be given a lot of time to develop – more than a decade – before it enters service in the mid-2020s, will have precisely-defined, modestly ambitious requirements (no goldplated ones), and will use numerous existing technologies from existing aircraft (instead of having them made new for this aircraft type), probably including engines, landing gear, computers, AESA radars, bomb bay and landing gear bay doors, and crew escape mechanisms. That’s how F-117s were built – they featured many existing technologies from existing planes. And if these bombers are produced in large numbers (at least 100 copies), they will be affordable. The more of them are produced, the cheaper they will be. As the old adage rightly says, “they’re cheaper to buy by the dozen.”

The Air Force WILL, despite critics’ doomsday projections, deliver these aircraft on time and on budget, in accordance with its core value of Excellence In All We Do.

Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the HASC, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, doubts whether the NGB needs to be nuclear-capable, although he stresses that he hasn’t made up his mind yet and wants to know if making it conventional-capable-only would bring about any significant savings. He’s right to be cautious, because it wouldn’t. He is wrong, however, to claim that the delay of the next-gen USAF cruise missile is not a huge problem. It is. This next-gen CM type is long overdue. It must not be delayed at all. The delay is purely budget-driven.


UPDATE ON 10/6/2012: Holistic, peer-reviewed analysis by AirPowerAustralia clearly demonstrates that the Next Generation Bomber is needed:

Advanced Russian technology exports present a major strategic risk for the US, whether operated by China, or smaller players like Iran or Venezuela. These systems will deny access to most US ISR and combat aircraft, with only the B-2A, the “2018 bomber” and the F-22A designed to penetrate such defences. With its compromised X-band optimised stealth, the F-35 JSF will simply not be survivable in this environment.

The fallback position of standoff bombardment with cruise missiles is not viable. Only a fraction will reach their targets through such defences, and the economics of trading $500k cruise missiles for $100k interceptors, or hundreds of dollars of laser propellant, favour the defender. Time of flight is problematic given the high mobility of air defence targets, and targeting the cruise missiles no less problematic given denial of ISR coverage.

The US will require a penetrating capability for ISR collection and for lethal suppression of highly mobile SAM, laser and radio-frequency Directed Energy Weapon batteries. This is over and above the need to deliver saturation attacks with the Small Diameter Bomb against actual targets of strategic or tactical interest.

Current planning for 180 F-22As and the legacy fleet of 20 B-2As is simply not credible given the diversity of roles and missions, and sheer sortie count required to deal with anything above a trivial opponent.”

Got it?

UPDATE: On January 11th, 2013, in an op-ed for AOL Defense, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley (appointed by Gates) reaffirmed the need for the NGB, while also demonstrating how little this program, and bomber programs in general, cost compared to the USAF’s total modernization budget:

“The new Long-Range Strike bomber is one of our top priorities and encompasses approximately two percent of Air Force investment. An additional three percent over the next five years goes to sustain and modernize the B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers to ensure these aging aircraft remain viable.”

6 thoughts on “Why a nuclear-capable next-gen bomber is necessary”

  1. Your analysis of why a nuclear-capable next generation strategic bomber is necessary, is right on the mark, but given current trends – the fact that the Usurper-in-Chief is getting rid of our nuclear warhead stockpile – what will those aircraft be delivering? Leaflets? Perhaps you will tackle the state of our nuclear arms stockpile in a future entry….

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