Our Geriatric Bomber Force
This 4th of July, the nation witnessed a fly-by of its airpower. It was a far cry from the airpower displays flying over Washington D.C. that I viewed as a boy on national holidays in the late 1950s. Then, dozens of B-47 bombers literally cast a shadow over the viewers. On this Fourth, only three bombers were on display—a B-52 built in the Kennedy years; a B-1B built during the Reagan administration; and our “newest” bomber, the B-2, over 30 years of age.
To put the current bomber deficit situation in historical context, in 1957 the Air Force had 2,334 bombers in its inventory; in 1990 it had 411; the 2021 budget plans for 140. Yes, times have changed, but arguably the security challenges for the foreseeable future are much more complex and challenging than ever before. Historically under-resourced and now with the likely prospect of flat or declining defense budgets in the future, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is confronting the potential of painful tradeoffs between modernization, readiness, and capacity. However, given the outsized mission value of bombers and the fact that the bomber force is significantly undersized, looking to it for near-term budget savings risks creating a major capacity and capability gap. Instead, the Department of Defense (DOD) should increase investment in this critical mission area, fully funding bomber readiness, sustaining the current force, and ramping up acquisition plans for the new B-21 bomber.
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Since 2004, the USAF has continually deployed B-1B, B-52H, or B-2 bombers to Guam on six-month rotations. Their presence has been a centerpiece of U.S. power projection in the Indo-Pacific, serving both to deter potential adversaries such as China and North Korea and to reassure partners in the region. Bombers deployed to the Indo-Pacific serve as a prominent symbol of America’s commitment to the region through regular flight operations, training exercises, and military-to-military engagements with allies. In the event of a crisis, bombers also provide a rapid and versatile global strike capability.
The Air Force recently ended its continuous bomber presence (CBP) mission on Guam. From an operational standpoint, the move reflects both the reality of the evolving security environment—and a shortage of these valuable aircraft. Although reassuring to our partners, the consistency and predictability of the deployments, also simplified the targeting problem for adversaries whose ability to strike Guam has steadily grown.
To address this vulnerability, the Air Force is transitioning to a more agile, less predictable deployment model known as dynamic force employment. The model itself is a product of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which requires U.S. military forces to be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.” The intent is to keep potential adversaries off-balance—uncertain about the purpose, intent, and timing of bomber deployments—by operating them in theater at irregular intervals from a broader array of overseas and continental U.S. locations.
The USAF’s transition to this new model is also intended to maximize the readiness of its bomber force. As General Timothy Ray recently pointed out, the lack of a flight training simulator and viable training range at Guam meant that only a fraction of the sorties flown as part of the CBP missions were actually building bomber force readiness. Instead of CBP, the USAF will continue to support combatant commanders’ deterrence objectives and other requirements by regularly deploying bomber task forces to the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and other regions. The dynamic force employment model is already being demonstrated by B-1Bs on 30-hour-plus round-trip missions from the U.S. as well as regional deployments to conduct missions in both the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Flying these missions improves bomber force readiness while also demonstrating U.S. ability to project force around the world on short notice.
However, the bomber enterprise is being stressed by its old age and chronic overuse. The current situation is the result of a disconnect between supply and demand. Today the Air Force operates the smallest bomber force—157 total aircraft—and oldest—average age of 45 years—since its formation as a separate service in 1947. At the same time, the demand for bombers has surged.
The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Because of a stove-piped DOD budgeting process that does not assess cost-effective power projection capability across service lines, the Air Force was forced in its latest budget proposal to cut 17 B-1B bombers. Assuming a realistic delivery schedule for the new B-21 next-generation stealth bomber, the bomber inventory will not return to even its current level until the mid-2030s, let alone the Air Force’s stated minimum requirement of 220 bombers.
The divergence between bomber supply and demand is likely to grow even further as the bomber force plays an increasingly central role in deterring great power rivals and other threats. Three points underline why this is true.
The first point relates to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding COVID-19 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt that forced the ship to divert from its patrol of the Western Pacific. Although tragic, it is not surprising given the close confines aboard warships. While the Roosevelt’s crew remained quarantined, four B-1Bs deployed to Guam to conduct bomber task force missions. These deployments will likely continue as they enable both a cost-effective and credible deterrent.
Second, dynamic force employment is fundamentally about stretching limited resources to maximize deterrence. The uncertainty about what might be operating in theater at a given time will dissuade adversaries more than the certainty of what is stationed in theater. It is also designed to maximize the probability that forces will be available to respond to global crises and contingencies—exchanging presence for readiness—to minimize the time-distance advantage potential adversaries seek to exploit. Bombers are uniquely suited to fulfill this role because their combination of range and speed means they can strike targets anywhere on the globe in a matter of hours—not days, weeks, or even months as surface forces require. For example, in response to the Iranian ballistic missile attacks in early 2020 that targeted the Al-Assad and Irbil military bases in Iraq, six B-52s were deployed to Diego Garcia to deter future attacks. The time from initial notification to the first bombers departing their home station at Barksdale AFB, LA was just 26 hours.
These complementary attributes of long-range, endurance, and speed are needed in multiple theaters, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Indo-Pacific command encompasses about half the earth’s surface, meaning that forces operating in the theater must contend with vast distances. Put simply, overcoming this tyranny of distance requires air forces that can operate at 600 knots, overcoming the 20-30 knot barrier of ships. Two B-52s can monitor 140,000 square miles of the ocean’s surface in just two hours.
Third, the capacity to deliver large weapon payloads with precision over intercontinental ranges is unique to the Air Force’s bomber force. The Air Force’s chief planner, Lt Gen David Nahom, recently testified before a House Armed Services subcommittee, “If you look at what the bombers bring, no one else brings it. Our joint partners don’t bring it, our coalition partners don’t bring it.” Facing COVID-19 induced defense budget pressures, it is likely that partners and allies will again be asked to shoulder a larger share of the costs of collective defense. However, there is no allied bomber force—only U.S. Air Force bombers have the capacity to deliver large payloads of weapons deep into adversary environments.
Given these clear demand signals, it is imperative that the DOD prioritize bomber forces. Multiple independent studies acknowledge this fact by recommending the USAF plan for more bombers than in its current force. Looking ahead that means procuring as many as 240 B-21 bombers. In the interim, the most cost-effective way to maintain a credible U.S. power projection capability is to extend the B-2’s life, sustain the B-1B fleet, and fully fund bomber readiness until the B-21 can pick up the load to meet the requirements of the U.S. defense strategy.
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