Article Published in the Defense News
Michael Vickers’ compelling commentary on bomber modernization, “Bolster the B-2 Fleet Now,” in the Oct 23 issue, left me feeling both sad and angry. Sad that the U.S. Air Force has undermined so thoroughly the promise of “Global Reach, Global Power.” And angry that President Bill Clinton’s administration has embraced a force structure incapable of coping with likely threats.
We all know why the B-2 bomber program was terminated at 21 planes, rather than producing the originally planned 132: The Soviet Union collapsed, the program was very expensive, and future threats seemed unlikely to require such sophisticated aircraft.
In the immediate afterglow of winning the Cold War, policymakers lost sight of the fact that communism was merely the latest in a series of threats to American democracy originating in Eurasia. Before communism there was fascism. Before fascism there was imperialism.
Having spent the last decade trying to contain Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Serbia, the larger historical pattern is now clearer. Unrestrained, any one of these nations could grow beyond its current status of regional menace to present a serious geopolitical challenge. So could China or India or a resurgent Russia.
America’s need to assure prompt military access to Eurasia thus remains as strong as in the past. But our current network of bases and alliances there is an inheritance of the Cold War. It is rapidly becoming smaller and less reliable.
Even if we can count on a few key allies for the long run – a dubious assumption – we can’t assume their bases will be in the right places, or intact after initial hours of combat. We must have some way of prosecuting war in the absence of bases.
The Air Force’s current modernization plan neglects this fundamental geopolitical reality. It invests in hundreds of short-legged strike aircraft and no new bombers. It proposes to operate 40-year-old B-52s for another 40 years, under-performing B-1s for at least that long, and a miniscule force of only 21 survivable, penetrating B-2s.
For those of us who believed the Air Force should own the future, this is a bitter disappointment. It means in the near term that the lead in enforcing global peace will shift to sea-based forces, and that the Air Force only will recover its lost stature when it becomes better established in space a generation from now.
Air Force planners have formulated a series of foolish mantras that they routinely repeat to rationalize this situation, such as, “If people don’t want us there [in Eurasia], maybe we shouldn’t be there.” Hitler didn’t want us there. Stalin didn’t either. We knew we had to go there.
There is not going to be another manned bomber. The next generation of global strike systems will either be unmanned aircraft or orbital platforms. The question is what system will provide the Air Force with a bridge to that brighter future. Some version of the B-2 is the only answer that works. Denial won’t cut it in the next Quadrennial Defense Review.
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