Shortly after the Kosovo air war ended, a senior Air Force officer called me into his office, closed the door, and said, “The B-1 bomber is a piece of shit. We ought to get rid of every one of them.” He was right. The B-1 has been a disaster from day one. It isn’t stealthy, its electronic warfare systems don’t work correctly, and its support costs are astronomical. The Serbs — no one’s idea of world-class adversaries — managed to shoot decoys off of them nine times, forcing changes in attack plans.
It’s no coincidence that a “transformation panel” of outside advisors recommended the B-1 be retired in its first report to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. That recommendation changed after the Air Force chief of staff had a one-on-one with the panel chairman (himself a retired USAF four-star), saying the service couldn’t afford to buy more stealthy B-2 bombers. So now the plan is to spend a billion dollars a year across the FYDP upgrading B-1’s, fly them for another 40 years, and begin developing yet another new bomber.
That’s pretty much what you’d expect from the Clinton Administration, but not from Bush. The B-1 is a clinical example of the kind of obsolete Cold War system the President has said should be retired. The only reason it was bought at all was to serve as an “interim” bomber until the more capable B-2 became available. The option of buying more B-2’s still exists, and most of the administration’s senior national-security managers have at one time or another endorsed doing so. So where’s the plan?
It’s in the same place it has been for the last decade: bottled up in an Air Staff that thinks buying 2,000 fighters and no bombers over the next three decades is a sensible modernization plan. The new secretary of the Air Force–who upon arriving at the Pentagon went native at warp speed – supports that plan. The fact that all those fighters may have no place to land in Eurasia ten or twenty years hence doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does past experience. During the first two months of the Kosovo conflict, B-2’s flew 3% of the sorties but hit 33 % of the aimpoints — despite the fact they were flying 30-hour roundtrips from the U.S.
The Air Force secretary says that at $500 million each, more B-2’s cost too much. He prefers to rely on cruise missiles shot from standoff ranges, or a new supersonic bomber, or hundreds of stealthy tactical aircraft. Has anyone added up the cost of these alternatives? Let’s see, 40,000 aimpoints in Desert Storm times $500,000 per standoff munition… Hmmm. And unlike B-2, cruise missiles don’t come back. He also says the B-2 is too old, when in fact nobody has devised a stealthier airframe and new production would entail using better, cheaper electronics.
This isn’t brain surgery. All the geopolitical, operational, budgetary and technical requirements point to the same conclusion. The bureaucracy just doesn’t like the answer. Determining the future of the nation’s bomber force is a defining moment for Secretary Rumsfeld, because it is a rare opportunity to break with Clinton-era orthodoxy. If the new team can’t get this one right, then help is on the wane.
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D. is Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, and teaches military topics at Georgetown University.
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