Later this spring, the Department of Defense will unveil its decision for the new long-range strike bomber. The program, designed to supplement aging bomber inventories and replace outmoded technologies, will ensure continued freedom of action in the face of increasingly sophisticated air defense systems and provide an important contribution to the preservation of the American military advantage. Given the criticality of the capabilities provided by the new bomber, it will be crucial for the program to proceed apace — free from requirements creep, on cost and on schedule.
There is a robust, bipartisan consensus that the new long-range bomber is a key instrument of nuclear and conventional power projection. The current fleet is rapidly aging and possesses technology that is inadequate to meet the threats of the future. Today's bomber fleet consists of the non-stealthy but high ordnance-capacity B-52s, with an average airframe age of 50 years, and B-1s, which average 28 years. While these platforms have undergone life extension programs that will enable them to remain in the fleet until 2040, they could not survive advanced air defenses and thus are ill-suited to operations in the contested environments that the United States will likely face in the future. The stealthy B-2, in contrast, enjoys a newer airframe — with an average age of 20 years — but also is largely reliant on Cold War-era technology, and only 20 are still in service. At any given time, fewer still are available operationally, as some aircraft are, by necessity, rotated through routine maintenance.
Yet even regional conflicts require tens of thousands of bombs to degrade and destroy an enemy's military assets. During Operation Desert Storm, allied forces dropped roughly 265,000 bombs in over 110,000 sorties, while forces in Operation Enduring Freedom — benefiting from advances in precision weaponry — dropped 22,000 bombs in over 38,000 sorties. Guided missile submarines (SSGNs), parked off an enemy's coast, can deliver additional firepower from close range but lack the quantities needed for a major war. While an SSGN can carry an impressive 154 Tomahawk missiles, the United States has only four SSGNs in its inventory, not all of which are likely to be available at the same time. The United States needs the ability to deliver large numbers of precision strikes against an adversary in a cost-effective manner, and penetrating bombers are an ideal platform for conducting that task.
Moreover, as advanced air defenses and other anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities continue to proliferate abroad — and increase in precision, range and numbers — stealthy, long-range platforms will play a critical role in sustaining US combat power. In the event of a conflict in the Western Pacific, for example, China could launch over 1,000 cruise and ballistic missiles at regional air bases, including those at Kadena and Iwakuni. While the US could maintain limited air operations through a combination of air defenses, base hardening and runway repairs, such an attack would significantly diminish the sortie rates of tactical aircraft. US aircraft carriers would similarly be at risk, not only from the much-publicized DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, but also from waves of land-based Chinese fighters carrying barrages of anti-ship cruise missiles. In combination, these threats could force US carriers and land-based aircraft to operate from farther away, a major challenge given the disproportionate US investment in short-range tactical aircraft.
An upgraded long-range bomber capable of penetrating advanced air defenses is thus a weight-bearing pillar of DoD's response to these challenges. Indeed, the need for such a bomber has been repeatedly highlighted within US strategy documents — including the 2006, 2010 and 2014 quadrennial defense reviews — across four secretaries of defense and both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Without the ability to penetrate deep into — and loiter within — defended airspace, the very future of US global power projection will be at risk.
Despite the clear national security benefit of a new bomber, major acquisition programs like the bomber all too-often fall victim to a number of programmatic dangers: requirements creep, cost overruns and lengthy delays. Some selection decisions can additionally devolve into acrimonious public protests, as seen with the KC-X tanker decision and the long-running U-2 vs. Global Hawk debate. Such outcomes deprive the military of critical capabilities and often result in otherwise unnecessary force structure tradeoffs. If unchecked, they may also produce the acquisition death spiral of rising costs and decreasing procurement quantities that has crippled similar next-gen systems like the DDG 1000. Given the high price tag of the bomber program — expected to come in at approximately $55 billion in total — as well as the limited quantity of the planned buy, the program is particularly susceptible to this fate. But the bomber is too important for DoD to allow this to occur. Cost and schedule discipline will be crucial throughout the life of the program.
With the proliferation of advanced air defenses and other A2/AD systems that will likely constrain US tactical aircraft over the long term, the capabilities provided by the new bomber will be vital to maintaining US global power projection, and thus to ensuring US national security well into the future. For this reason, DoD must make every effort to maintain restraint in requirements and to advance the program expeditiously. Failure to do so could hold grave consequences for the future of American power projection.
Kelley Sayler and Paul Scharre are researchers with the Center for a New American Security's 20YY Warfare Initiative.