This week’s issue of Flight International features the US and Russia’s new bomber programs. Russia is hoping to develop the PAK-DA for entry into service in the mid-2020s. My colleague Vladimir Karnozov has written this story detailing the Russian efforts.
But the US Air Force is also working to develop a new Long Range Strike-Bomber as the country shifts its gaze toward the Pacific after a decade of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia. In that theatre, it is confronted with the potential threat from a rising China and the tyranny of vast distances.
However, the United States has not in recent years confronted such a potential near-peer adversary, not since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union. Even then, the Pacific was a theatre of secondary concern after Western Europe and the Atlantic. In many ways, the United States has not faced challenges over such long distances since World War II, when the country was embroiled in conflict with Imperial Japan.
To meet the challenges of the Pacific, the United States will have to rely increasingly on air and sea power. But analysts say the United States may have over-invested in short-range tactical aircraft that are unsuitable for the vast distances of the Pacific theatre. Moreover, during the past decade of conflict, the United States has mostly invested in capabilities designed to hunt lightly-armed guerillas–such as Reaper drones and MRAPS–rather than weapons that would enable it to confront a state actor. In the Pacific, those capabilities may not be particularly useful.
Increasingly, as China fields large numbers of conventional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced fighters, land bases in the region are vulnerable to attack. The Taliban attack on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan (where six USMC AV-8B Harriers were destroyed and two more severely damaged), though a world away from the Pacific, highlights the dangers of basing aircraft in areas where they could come under attack while still on the ground. (This could also be a problem during a fight with Iran…)
But there are other potential problems with land bases in that theatre. The threat of being drawn into a regional conflict between the two Pacific giants may cow regional allies–preventing or restricting the use of regional 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. In these scenarios, short-range tactical fighters–even stealthy ones like the Lockheed Martin F-35–may not be the most useful weapons.
Another thing to consider: if an enemy force can threaten a carrier, it can also certainly threaten the USAF’s big-wing tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft–which would further restrict the operations of short-range tactical aircraft.
One way to counter these anti-access/area denial threats is the use of long-range airpower. Bombers with intercontinental range require no basing-access and can launch strikes directly from the US mainland (either using direct attack weapons if it’s a penetrating strike aircraft or stand-off weapons if it’s not). With sufficient numbers, a robust bomber force can deliver sustained strike capability deep inside enemy airspace, holding all points on the map at risk to aerial attack.
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. Today’s Air Force Global Strike Command has only 85 Boeing B-52 bombers remaining in service, but the ageing aircraft is more than 50 years old and has no ability to penetrate into hostile airspace, relying instead upon 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 B-2 Spirit stealth bombers has a modicum of penetration capability, but over time, even this aircraft will likely lose its ability to fight inside heavily defended airspace.
That means the United States has little choice but to invest in the US Air Force’s new long-range penetrating stealth bomber programme until it reaches fruition. Right now, the USAF plans to buy only 80 to 100 of the LRS-B aircraft but analysts and retired officials say that number may not be sufficient… Lt Gen David Deptula, the USAF’s former intelligence chief and Rebecca Grant, a noted air power expert, both say more are needed–155 to 200 jets. But while investing in the new bomber will restore the USAF’s long range strike, it will also ”put an exclamation mark over the US’s return to a global superpower role, rather than just a regional nation-builder with dubious prospects,” as Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group puts it.