Article Published in the National Defense
The experience of the Kosovo air campaign provides important insight into the problems with Air Force plans not because the campaign was so challenging but because it should have been so easy. After all, this was an operation in which the U.S. acted as part of a nineteen-nation alliance that includes half of the world’s other great military powers.
Many well-equipped bases were available within range of former Yugoslavia (the U.S. used over twenty of them), and U.S. forces were heavily supported by allied air assets configured for interoperability. The adversary was a backward Balkan rump-state of barely ten million people, surrounded by half a dozen regional foes eager to seize its territory. Prospects for a NATO victory could hardly have been more favorable.
To fully appreciate the tenuousness of Air Force plans, one need only imagine the Kosovo scenario unfolding in a region where there are no nearby U.S. bases or allies. How long would the programmed bomber fleet be able to operate effectively in the absence of Air Force tactical assets? And what would it cost? A single B-52H sortie employing cruise missiles against a dozen targets costs over $20 million in munitions alone. If one B-52 conducted a single such sortie every day over the course of a six-week air war (as in Operation Desert Storm), it would use a billion dollars’ worth of munitions.
The comparable cost to accomplish the same missions with a B-2 using precision glide bombs would be about $12 million.
Contrary to the expectations of critics, the B-2 performed very well over former Yugoslavia despite the limitations imposed by Air Force failure to deploy it at bases outside the United States. The B-2 is the only truly stealthy long-range bomber ever built, and although its production base is now eroded, it continues to be upgraded into the most capable “Block 30″ configuration. It is the logical test bed for a next-generation bomber or a less costly, more capable variant of the original B-2 airframe.
Much of the B-2’s very steep cost has been driven by unique production processes, heavy security restrictions, and the inevitable uncertainties of working with new technologies. By reengineering the production process to emphasize commercial best practices, off-the-shelf procurements, relaxed security requirements and stable funding, it should be possible to cut the flyaway cost in half (to around three times the cost of a commercial jumbo jet).
It’s unfortunate that attenuation of the B-2 production base caused by premature program termination precludes additional bomber construction in the near term. If Kosovo is any indication, new production may be required much sooner than envisioned in the Air Force’s”White Paper on Long Range Bombers” released March 1.
It is now fifty years since the Boeing Company began developing a revolutionary bomber designated the XB-52. The basic concept for the huge swept-wing bomber was pulled together on an autumn weekend in 1948 by a team of Boeing engineers visiting the Air Force’s R&Dcenter at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio.
Frustrated in efforts to develop a suitable design for a next-generation turboprop bomber, Air Force leaders embraced Boeing’s vision of an all-jet aircraft capable of carrying a five-ton load of bombs 8,000 miles without refueling.
The first prototype of the XB-52 was rolled out of Boeing’s Seattle aircraft plant three years later, a triumph of new technology and unfettered innovation.
The engineers and designers who developed that first prototype did not know was that they were engaged in the last fully successful bomber development effort in the Air Force’s history. Every initiative to develop a successor to the B-52 Stratofortress would falter. The B-58 briefly saw service, but proved to have a suboptimal design. The B-70 was canceled in development by the Kennedy Administration. The B-1 was canceled by the Carter Administration and resurrected by the Reagan Administration.
By the time it was finally fielded – – with chronic performance problems – – it had already been overtaken by new concepts in bomber design. The B-2 fared better in development, but was terminated at twenty aircraft in 1992.
Today, half a century after development of the XB-52 , the last variant of the plane – – the B-52H, delivered in the early 1960s – – is still a key part of the U.S. heavy bomber force. In fact, the Air Force plans to retain most of the remaining B-52s in the operational force until around 2040, giving the venerable Stratofortress a design-to-demise lifespan not much less than the time elapsed between the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk and today.
Many experts say this is proof of the extraordinary foresight and skill with which the B-52 was designed. Others argue that it says as much about the lack of coherence and vision in Air Force bomber modernization efforts since the Reagan years.
The bomber roadmap was prepared in response to direction contained in the 1999 defense authorization and appropriations acts. It integrates a series of implausibly optimistic assumptions about future bomber requirements into a report that concludes the current heavy bomber force is probably adequate to meet national needs for the next forty years.
It proposes to spend less than 1% of the Air Force’s investment budget on bomber modernization until late in the second decade of the next century, when development of a new bomber is expected to begin.
The roadmap adopts the requirement for 187 long-range heavy bombers described in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. That document assumed a force of 71 B-52’s, 95 B-1’s and 21 B-2’s. However, because two B-1’s were subsequently lost in peacetime accidents, the roadmap adds five B-52’s from the attrition reserve to compensate for lost capabilities, creating a total force of 190 bombers.
Of these, 130 are combat-coded, with the remainder set aside for training (24 aircraft), backup (20), attrition reserve (14), and testing (2). The plan acknowledges that various upgrades to the bomber force described in the earlier 1992 bomber roadmap – -mainly to permit use of precision-guided conventional munitions – – will not be completed until 2004.
The 1999 roadmap proposes a series of phased improvements in the bomber fleet to enhance situational awareness and survivability, and to prevent obsolescence in key systems such as radars, navigation equipment, computers and cockpit displays.
The roadmap specifies a division of labor among the bombers, with the newer B-2assigned critical penetration tasks in medium to high risk environments, the B-1 assigned similar roles in low to medium risk scenarios, and the B-52 reserved for low-risk penetration and standoff cruise-missile missions.
The roadmap anticipates development of that aircraft will commence in 2019, with production begun in 2034 and initial operating capability in 2037. However, the roadmap notes that faster development may be needed due to unforeseen threats, high attrition rates, high sustainment costs or nuclear deterrence requirements arising out of the arms control process.
These plans seem inconsistent with the findings of the Defense Department’s Long Range Air Power Panel chaired
Find Archived Articles: