So why does the nation need stealth bombers? With the news of a new bomber being procured, that question is being asked a lot by those unfamiliar with stealth bomber capabilities, but it is well understood in the US Air Force.
Stealth bombers are not only used in conflict against the most valuable and most defended targets, but they also prevent conflict.
It was just about two years ago that the North Korean regime was rattling its sabre, threatening both our allies in the region and Hawaii with long-range missile attacks. The US needed to send a message and the options were thin. The Navy required weeks to be on station, and the fighter aircraft available did not seem to deter the regime.
The US needed to send a very clear message to North Korea: We can reach out and strike you from anywhere in the world. And we can do it quickly.
The B-2 stealth bombers were called in. Two of the aircraft flew 6,500 miles from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, dropped bombs on a test range in South Korea and flew back to the US. The statement the US sent with the flight was: "The United States is steadfast in its alliance commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, to deterring aggression, and to ensuring peace and stability in the region. The B-2 bomber is an important element of America's enduring and robust extended deterrence capability in the Asia-Pacific region."
The B-2 not only wins wars, it also stabilizes dangerous situations.
Flying the two bombers to South Korea was also a reminder to the Chinese that North Korean actions have consequences. By operating from the sanctuary of the US homeland, we were able to quietly signal that we were taking North Korea's threats seriously, but escalation was not necessary. The two bombers were capable of carrying a total of 160 individually targeted, GPS-guided weapons, a strong signal that war with the United States would not end well.
This is not a unique incident. Study after study has shown that bombers do more than simply strike targets. A Rand Corp. analysis found that long-range bombers are more effective than short-range fighters or missiles for stabilizing a crisis and managing escalation. Bombers contribute the most to structural stability for both conventional and nuclear scenarios, provide the most flexible component of the US strategic triad and are the best way to reassure allies of our commitment to extended deterrence. In other words, the bomber is more than just a strike platform; it is also a powerful tool of diplomacy.
But US bomber capabilities are withering. Today, the US has fewer than 100 combat ready bombers with an average age of 38 years and not even 20 of those (the newer B-2s) can penetrate enemy airspace and deliver the necessary firepower.
The older bombers are simply not survivable in the face of modern air defenses. The newer B-2s remain potent, but are few in number. And while the Air Force is planning to build a new bomber, the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), the number being discussed of 80-100 aircraft is simply not enough.
Every analysis since the beginning of the modern jet age has established a requirement to build between 230 and 250 long-range, combat aircraft. Every bomber study after the Cold War concluded that 160 combat-coded aircraft (requiring a fleet of some 200 total aircraft) were needed both to support conventional operations and to maintain a dedicated nuclear deterrence force.
Current threat and deterrence analysis shows that a similar number of bombers is the minimum capability needed to address the growing range of national security requirements.
The proliferation of advanced air defenses combined with the re-emergence of old foes means the future security environment will likely demand even more aircraft to deter these potential adversaries. The need to penetrate highly defended airspace at greater ranges and with higher levels of persistence is paramount.
Consequently, the Air Force's plan to build 80 to 100 Long-Range Strike Bombers should be viewed as a down payment for a larger inventory. Furthermore, as the LRS-B program matures, each aircraft will become more affordable and the fleet will become even more valuable to deterrence.
As a result, the Air Force should consider establishing an ongoing bomber procurement program similar to other acquisition programs, such as the C-130, C-17, F-4, F-15 and F-16, where the Air Force acquired significantly more aircraft than originally planned by extending the production run.
That decision does not need to be made today, but this capability must not be strangled in its infancy. The demands of the future security environment will place an increasing premium on penetrating long-range strike capabilities.
The nation cannot afford to wait any longer. We must make a long-term budgetary commitment to this critical national asset.
Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Elder is a research professor at George Mason University and former commander of USSTRATCOM's global strike component. He has been an adviser to defense contractors, including Boeing and Northrop Grumman.