As the USA shifts its gaze toward the Pacific after a decade of conflict in the Middle East and south Asia, it is confronted with a rising China and the tyranny of vast distances.
But the country has not confronted a near-peer adversary since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union. To control the Pacific, the US will have to rely increasingly on air and sea power, but it may have over-invested in short-range tactical aircraft that are unsuitable for the vast distances of the Pacific theatre.
Increasingly, as China fields large numbers of conventional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced fighters, land bases in the region are vulnerable to attack. Moreover, the threat of being drawn into a regional conflict between the two giants may force allies in the area to restrict US use of their bases for operations against China. Similarly, Chinese submarines, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, and potentially maritime strike aircraft may force US Navy aircraft carriers further out to sea, limiting their effectiveness.
Long-range airpower can counter these threats, as bombers with intercontinental range can launch strikes from the US mainland. And in sufficient numbers, a bomber force could deliver sustained strike capability deep inside enemy airspace.
But the US long-range strategic bomber fleet has shrunk drastically since the end of the Cold War. What remains of the once-mighty Strategic Air Command is but a shadow of its old strength. Only 85 Boeing B-52 bombers remain in service, but the aircraft is more than 50 years old and has no ability to penetrate hostile airspace, relying instead on stand-off weapons. The newer Rockwell B-1B Lancer is somewhat more survivable, but the fleet of 60 jets is, at best, suitable to a medium threat environment. Only the tiny fleet of 20 Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bombers has a modicum of penetration capability, but defensive advances will over time erode its ability to fight inside heavily defended airspace.
Thus development of the US Air Force's new long-range penetrating stealth bomber programme should be a budget priority - as should buying the aircraft in robust numbers. Right now, though, the USAF plans to buy only 80 to 100 of the new Long Range Strike-Bomber, but that number may not be sufficient to meet the Pacific threat. If budgets cannot stretch to support that build-up while maintaining the tactical fighter fleet, it is the fighters that should be cut back.
(This first appeared as the main leading article in the 16 October 2012 issue of Flight International).