The focus of most of the current defense debate has been on the impact of sequestration on the ability to modernize our military. Despite significant increases in defense budgets since 9/11, relatively little of that largesse was spent to replace aging platforms and weapons with newer ones. Unfortunately, other countries didn’t take a holiday. Russia, China, North Korea, Syria and Iran, to name just a few, have been investing heavily in advanced offensive and defensive systems designed specifically to exploit limitations and weaknesses in current U.S. capabilities. The Air Force, in particular, must give funding priority to selected modernization programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, KC-46 tanker and new long-range strike system.
At the same time, the Air Force is striving to make the greatest use possible of its existing inventory of platforms and weapons designed and, for the most part, acquired during the Cold War. Somewhat ironically, in several cases it is precisely because the platforms in question were built during the Cold War that they continue to have life and utility. Designed with the possibility of a major conflict with the Soviet Union in mind, these systems possess a robustness that will allow them to respond to changes in both the threat and their missions and continue to support the warfighter for decades to come.
One example of a Cold War platform that will be in the force until at least the middle of this century is the venerable B-52 bomber. Built to survive in a nuclear environment and penetrate dense Soviet air defenses, the B-52 has enormous physical resilience, payload capacity and durability. Over the past five decades, this allowed the Air Force to change the bomber’s primary nuclear mission from that of a high altitude to a low altitude penetrator and then again to a standoff missile carrier. With recent modifications and improvements, the B-52 now also has a role as a conventional bomber, delivering up to 30,000 lbs. of guided weapons and gravity bombs on targets half a world away. The Air Force expects to keep the B-52 in the inventory for several decades more at least, equipping it with advanced standoff weapons in order to ensure its ability to operate as a strategic platform in the face of advanced air defense threats.
Another platform built for one century but equally capable of serving in another is the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. Like the B-52, the U-2 was designed for intensive use under very hostile conditions. With the advent of space-based sensors, the demand on the U-2 fleet has been less than was initially anticipated. For this reason, the average U-2 in the fleet still has about 80 percent of its expected service life left. Kelly Johnson and the engineers at Skunk Works designed the U-2 with the idea that its missions and payloads might change. That is why it has more engine power (17,000 lbs. thrust), payload (5,000 lbs.) and internal power than any other large reconnaissance platform ever built. The features also allow the U-2 to operate at extremely high altitudes, up to 70,000 feet, which enables its sensors to see deep into hostile territory. With its improved avionics, pressurized cockpit and powerful engines, the U-2 can also operate through adverse weather. As a result, the U-2 has established a mission effectiveness rate in operations around the world of better than 90 percent. Depending on demand from the Combatant Commanders, and advances in payloads, one could expect to see the U-2 remain in service until nearly the end of the 21st century.
Given its current budgetary challenges, the Air Force has shown wisdom in exploiting the resilience and power built into so-called Cold War-era platforms like the B-52 and U-2. It is going to be hard enough for the Air Force to maintain even the most critical modernization programs.
Find Archived Articles: