The Lexington Institute has prepared a concise study explaining why development of the Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) is essential to national security. The following summary captures the major points made in the study.
- Bombers have played a vital role in recent conflicts. From the Balkans to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, the Air Force’s fleet of long-range, heavy bombers has proven highly useful in defeating diverse adversaries. Bombers typically deliver a disproportionate share of the munitions expended in air campaigns, and the advent of precision-guided weapons has enabled them to hit many targets in a single flight — day or night, in good weather or bad.
- Heavy bombers are uniquely versatile and cost-effective. The defining features of heavy bombers are long reach and large payloads. These features have allowed them to adapt to changing threat conditions in a way that smaller tactical aircraft — manned or unmanned — could not. For instance, the B-52 bomber debuted as a high-flying nuclear bomber, but later became a low-level penetrator, then a conventional bomber, and today a mixed-use strike aircraft that can launch cruise missiles.
- The current bomber force is capable but aging. The heavy bomber force includes 76 B-52 Stratofortresses averaging 50 years of age, 63 B-1 Lancers averaging 28 years, and 20 B-2 Spirits averaging 20 years. Each of the bombers can deliver a mixed payload of precision munitions to an unrefueled range of 6,000 miles or greater. The B-52 is the only standoff cruise missile carrier in the fleet, the B-1 is the only supersonic bomber, and the B-2 is the only stealthy bomber. All three are facing age-related issues.
- Efforts to buy a new bomber have been repeatedly delayed. When the Cold War ended, the defense department terminated production of the B-2 and ceased development of new bombers for the first time since the 1920s. Plans to pursue a next-generation bomber were delayed by changing threat conditions and the appearance of new technologies that could bolster the performance of aging planes. As a result, the U.S. has not developed a new heavy bomber in three decades.
- The Air Force has plans to develop a new bomber. The Air Force has budgeted $6 billion for development of a Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) between 2013 and 2017. The service says it will buy 80-100 aircraft at an average cost of $550 million each, with initial operational capability in 2025. Although details are secret, experts predict the new bomber will be able to operate autonomously in hostile airspace, carrying a mixed payload of precision munitions over intercontinental distances.
- Existing strike capabilities must be upgraded as a new bomber is developed. It will take 20 years to develop, produce and deploy LRS-B. During that time, the Air Force must continue sustaining legacy strike aircraft to deter aggression and defeat aggressors. Each of the bombers in the current fleet requires upgrades to enhance connectivity with other friendly forces, expand the range of munitions that can be delivered, and cope with age-related maladies such as metal corrosion.
- Failure to develop a new bomber could have fatal consequences. The existing bomber force cannot cope with new challenges indefinitely. As countries like China pursue anti-access strategies and more agile air defenses become available to potential adversaries, the U.S. must recapitalize its aging bomber fleet. Failure to do so could eventually result in major military setbacks, since future enemies will doubtless attack the joint force where it is weakest.
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