National Security & Defense

Don’t Retire Our Stealth Bombers

A B-2 Spirit bomber during an aerial refueling over the North Atlantic Ocean in 2014. (Photo: Technical Sergeant Paul Villanueva)
It’s more cost-effective and smarter strategically to maintain them.

When a local community government has trouble getting its books to balance or it simply desires additional tax revenue to expand local government, but it does not have support from the community, it will often pursue a “firehouses and police stations” strategy. Rather than identify low-end nonessential services or perhaps cut back on its internal bureaucracy, local government officials will select highly visible “sacred cows” — essential services such as firehouses and local police precincts — as the targets for cuts. With this sleight of hand, bureaucrats aim to balance the budget or free up funds for new pet projects, because they know that the public will never accept such cuts. It is a common tactic that is easily recognized by political analysts.

Well, it’s clear that the United States Air Force has recently decided to put some “firehouses,” in the form of highly capable B-2 stealth bombers, on the line in order to win additional funding from the Congress as the Air Force moves into production of its new B-21 Raider bomber.

This week, as part of the president’s budget rollout, the Air Force will be issuing its new “Bomber Vector” roadmap, which will detail the acquisition and retirement plan for our 21st-century bomber force. The roadmap will include the production schedule for the 100 new B-21 Raiders, as well as the retirement plan for older bombers such as the 1980s-era B-1B bombers.

However, in a surprising move, the Air Force’s Bomber Vector roadmap also includes a plan to retire all 20 of the service’s nuclear-capable, stealthy, B-2 Spirit bombers. These iconic, black flying wings have served as the backbone of the nation’s long-range penetrating strike force for the past quarter-century. The Air Force is arguing that, given the upfront costs of acquiring the new B-21 bombers, it can no longer afford to maintain the older B-2 aircraft.

Even the most cursory analysis of the global security environment highlights long-range penetrating strike as the critical emerging mission requirement, especially in light of the expansion of anti-access area-denial capabilities, which include advanced surface-to-air defensive missile capabilities. This analysis suggests that the Air Force will need more bomber capacity than can be supplied by its 100 new B-21 bombers.

In fact, multiple reports from various analysts reveal that the Air Force will need a minimum of 160 penetrating, long-range strike bombers if the nation decides to execute a sustained campaign against a rival great power. Against this strategic context, any proposal by Air Force leadership to retire a key component of the nation’s nuclear strategic triad and diminish our overall capacity to penetrate modern anti-air defenses can only be viewed as a blatant attempt to coerce Congress into raising its overall budgetary top line.

At this stage, what should the Air Force be doing, and what should the Congress ask it to do as part of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act? Perform an overall assessment of the service’s real strategic requirements given the current and future security environment. This assessment should consider whether the service’s current balance between long-range and short-range aircraft makes sense in light of expanding anti-access area-denial technologies. Additionally, given that both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy call out great-power competition broadly and China and Russia specifically as future threats while also recognizing that transnational terrorism will remain as a strategic challenge, we must ask: Does the Air Force’s future aircraft inventory make sense? It currently plans to field just shy of 2,000 fifth-generation, short-ranged fighters while building only 100 new, long-ranged, all-aspect stealth, penetrating bombers. Is that sufficient?

We see some signs of innovation within the Air Force’s overall plan, such as adding cheaper, simpler, light-attack aircraft to its inventory to perform day-to-day attacks against terrorists driving white Toyota pick-ups around the desert (probably not the best use of a $100-million-per copy fifth-generation fighter). Nonetheless, we need more emphasis in the Vector roadmap on the future threats that will pose the greatest danger to our nation.

The bottom line is that the Air Force is going to need more long-range penetrating strike bombers then it currently plans for within its budget.

The bottom line is that the Air Force is going to need more long-range penetrating strike bombers then it currently plans for within its budget. It will need more than the 100 B-21 Raiders that it plans to buy. In fact, it will probably need close to 150 of these aircraft if it is to be able to execute a sustained bombing campaign against a near-peer, great-power competitor. It will also need every one of the 20 B-2 Spirits that the Air Force retains in its inventory. Their low-stress, flying-wing structural design should enable these aircraft to fly for decades to come, much as their B-52 antecedents have. It’s true that their stealth characteristics do come with higher maintenance costs, but these are nowhere near their one-for-one replacement costs, and the nation needs these aircraft to meet its national-security requirements. The Air Force should stop threatening to close firehouses. It should manage its budget to meet strategic requirements.

Jerry Hendrix — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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