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USAF calls for nuclear debate as fiscal realities set in

The US Air Force has called for a national debate on how best to modernise America’s nuclear arsenal, with one official saying funding levels become “unmanageable” in fiscal year 2022 and beyond as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) replacement project ramps up.

The air force has initiated new development programmes to build a next-generation bomber, cruise missile and ballistic missile as well as install new command and control networks that connect the president with nuclear forces.

USAF deputy chief of staff for plans and requirements Lt Gen James Holmes says the most expensive bills for replacing the navy’s nuclear-armed submarines come due in the current five-year spending plan, mostly 2021, but the air force's fiscal troubles start the following year.

“Our problems become unmanageable in FY22 when the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) advances,” Holmes said at a budget briefing at the Pentagon on 12 February. “How much should we recapitalise? We want to have a national debate on that."

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B-2-maker Northrop Grumman has been selected to build 100 new "B-3" bombers but must first survive a bid protest challenge by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Northrop Grumman

Holmes declared that the service's current conventional and nuclear modernisation plans are unaffordable, but there is enough time now to have a national debate and seek guidance from the next administration.

"We'll have to come up with more money for those things or scope our ambitions in one or more of those areas and make some tradeoffs. We want to alter people that and have time to have a national discussion about how we want to proceed."

On the decision to retain the Fairchild Republic A-10 attack airplane, Holmes says new proposal would begin retiring aircraft starting in 2018 and the remaining fleet would gradually move to the boneyard through fiscal 2021. Today, there are 284 active A-10Cs.

“Mostly it’s about maintaining the fighter capacity we need,” Holmes says. “It’s a slower slope to retiring the A-10.”

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US Air Force

The planning official wouldn’t be drawn on what aircraft the Pentagon has selected for its “arsenal plane” concept. Revealed by the secretary of defence during his budget preview speech last week, the Strategic Capabilities Office plans to repurpose old airframes to carry large numbers of long-range air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.

It would rely on targeting information from stealthy, front-line fighter jets. It might even be networked with the proposed long-range strike bombers or perhaps space-based targeting systems.

This concept has been considered before, and might even revive old proposals such as the Boeing B-1R. The air force won’t say what weapons it will carry or if it would be a modified Boeing B-1B or B-52.

“We’ll keep all our options open on what it might carry. It’s great for where you need to carry a whole lot of long-range missiles,” says Holmes. “We’re going to hold onto our options with that and not tip our hand.”

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US Air Force

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