When the Obama Administration first began contemplating punitive strikes against Syrian military forces following the use of chemical weapons on August 21, it expected to rely solely on Tomahawk cruise missiles launched by Aegis warships. Tomahawks have been continuously upgraded since their inception so that they can now be retargeted in flight to strike within 10 yards of fleeting targets. That means that even though they are one-way, unmanned weapons, the Tomahawks can respond flexibly to changing tactical conditions — delivering the kind of precise and limited effects the administration says it is seeking.
If the administration had struck quickly in the immediate aftermath of chemical-weapons employment by Syria, the Navy’s Tomahawks would have been sufficient to do the job. But the delay associated with seeking congressional approval for military action has given Bashar al-Assad’s forces plenty of time to relocate the likely targets of U.S. attacks. Not only is U.S. intelligence having trouble keeping up with where key Syrian assets have moved, but in some cases it is no doubt finding they have been deployed very close to noncombatants as a way of deterring U.S. strikes. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon now thinks it will need to use other strike systems in addition to the Tomahawks.
It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to figure out what the preferred alternative might be. It will be the Air Force’s stealthy B-2 Spirit bombers, which can safely transit Syria’s heavily defended air space to precisely destroy sixteen separate targets in each flight. The Spirit has accomplished similar missions in the past, taking out time-sensitive targets in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya while suffering no operational losses thanks to its low-observable features and jamming of hostile radars by Navy electronic-warfare planes. The usual mission profile is to fly non-stop from its home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, extending the plane’s 7,000-mile range with aerial-refueling tankers.
That’s a long, long trip for the two-person crew, but in limited strike operations like the proposed attacks on Syria, it makes more sense than trying to set up a regional operating hub for the highly sophisticated bombers. B-2s require special skills and infrastructure to optimize the features that make them nearly invisible to enemy radar. Aside from their payload, range and survivability, what makes the B-2s a useful addition to cruise-missile strikes is that they have pilots and sensors on board suited to search-and-destroy missions. The bomber was originally conceived to track down mobile Soviet strategic targets in the midst of a nuclear war, and it was later adapted to performing similar missions with conventional munitions.
Although Tomahawk has become a remarkably versatile weapon, it can’t match the capacity of a B-2 to detect, track and destroy movable targets in a dynamic combat environment. With Syrians long since alerted to the fact that the Yanks may be coming, it makes sense to employ the one bomber in the U.S. arsenal that can safely penetrate defended air space to strike pinpoint targets without causing collateral damage to nearby civilians. The F-22 fighter provides similar survivability and accuracy but has a much smaller bomb-load, while the stealthy F-35 joint strike fighter is not yet operational. Non-stealthy strike aircraft such as the B-1 Lancer bomber and carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter might be shot down by Syria’s air defenses.
If there is a moral to this story, it is that the B-2 bomber provides genuinely unique warfighting capabilities to the joint force. That will continue to be the case for the next two decades whether Congress approves action in Syria or not, because it will take the Air Force 20 years to develop, produce and field its next bomber. It therefore is crucial to national security that the service keep upgrading and refining its 20 B-2s with better communications links, munitions and stealth features to assure it remains relevant to warfighting needs. No other nation has a long-range strike aircraft comparable to the B-2 bomber; it is a vital warfighting capability that must be preserved.
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