The nation faces a bomber crisis, and it is time to openly acknowledge the scale and scope of the problem.
Tasked with deterrence and, if necessary, striking targets around the globe, Air Force crews operating these aircraft afford the nation’s security leaders unique options best embodied in the phrase: anytime, anyplace. Despite the criticality of this mission, the Air Force currently operates the smallest, oldest fleet of bombers since its 1947 founding. No other service or ally has this capability, which places an imperative on this finite force. The service’s recent announcement that it will be ending its continuous bomber presence in Guam further amplifies the precarious state of bombers. It is a stark warning to senior leaders in the Pentagon, in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill that the Air Force is “out of Schlitz” when it comes to the critical missions they perform.
Bombers are unique instruments of power. They can strike targets with large volumes of kinetic firepower without requiring access to foreign bases and without projecting the vulnerability associated with regionally based land or sea forces. The striking power of a single bomber is immense. In fact, B-1Bs flying missions against ISIS in the opening days of Operation Inherent Resolve were able to carry more munitions than that delivered by an entire carrier air wing.
Stealth bombers can penetrate enemy air defenses, depriving mobile targets of sanctuary. They can also carry large bunker-buster munitions required to eliminate deeply buried and hardened facilities. Bomber aircraft are also cheaper to operate on a per-mission basis when compared to alternate options, like ships, large packages of smaller strike aircraft or standoff missiles.
The erosion of the bomber force is no secret. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force possessed 400 bombers arrayed to fight the Soviet Union. Today, it has just 157, with a plan to cut a further 17 in the fiscal 2021 budget submission. Air Force efforts to modernize the bomber force a decade ago were thwarted within the Department of Defense by an excessive near-term focus on counterinsurgency operations. Bombers are requested by combatant commands on a continual basis given the concurrent threats posed by peer adversaries, mid-tier nations like Iran and North Korea, and hostile nonstate actors.
The Air Force knows this mission area is stretched too thin, and that is precisely why in 2018 leaders called for an additional five bomber squadrons in “The Air Force We Need” force structure assessment.
Well-understood risk exists with operating a high-demand, low-density inventory for too long. The B-1B force, which makes up over one-third of America’s bomber capacity, offers a highly cautionary tale in this regard. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the service retired 26 of these aircraft to free up modernization funds, which subsequently were snatched away from the bomber mission area for other uses. For the next two decades, the Air Force flew the B-1B in a nearly continuous string of intense combat deployments. Sustainment funding was under-resourced, which further wore down the B-1B force. Last summer, B-1B readiness rates plummeted below 10 percent — effectively putting them out of commission.
As Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Tim Ray explained: “We overextended the B-1Bs.” It was a toxic formula of too much mission demand and too few airplanes. Air Force leaders continually signaled concern, but their calls for help went unanswered.
The normal solution to this sort of a challenge would be straight-forward: Go buy more airplanes. However, operational B-21s will not be in production until the latter 2020s. The Air Force is asking to retire 17 B-1s to free up resources to nurse the remaining aircraft along as a stopgap measure.
COVID-19 emergency spending and corresponding downward pressure on future defense spending are only going to aggravate the complexity of this juggling act with mission demand, available force structure and readiness. Whether world events will align with these circumstances is yet to be seen.
It was in this context that the Air Force decided to end its continuous bomber presence on Guam. Launched in 2004 to deter adversaries like China and North Korea and to reassure regional allies, the mission has been a tremendous success. It clearly communicated U.S. readiness to act decisively when U.S. and allied interests were challenged. Ending continuous bomber presence in the Pacific now sends the opposite message, just as the region grows more dangerous. This is a decision with significant risk, yet it is an outcome compelled by past choices resulting in a bomber force on the edge.
The path forward begins with admitting the nation has a bomber shortfall. Retiring more aircraft exacerbates the problem. Nor is this just an Air Force problem. Bombers are national assets essential to our security strategy and must be prioritized accordingly. If other services have excess funds to invest in ideas like a 1,000-mile-range cannon when thousands of strike aircraft, various munitions and remotely piloted aircraft can fill the exact same mission requirements, it is time for a roles and missions review to direct funding toward the most effective, efficient options. Bombers would compete well in such an assessment. Ultimately, the solution demands doubling down on the B-21 program.
There comes a point where you cannot do more with less. Given the importance of bombers to the nation, rebuilding the bomber force is not an option — it is an imperative.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem served as a fighter pilot and held various command positions. He concluded his service as the director of plans, policy and strategy at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He is currently the director of studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, where Douglas Birkey is the executive director. Birkey researches issues relating to the future of aerospace and national security, and he previously served as the Air Force Association’s director of government relations.