Freedom-loving nations are threatened on multiple fronts by authoritarian regimes in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world. The bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan set off a domino effect that emboldened totalitarian leaders across the globe. When America projects weakness, our adversaries will seek to capitalize.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s continued military aggression towards Taiwan, and Iran’s threats against our partners in the Middle East put America at center stage to prove once again why it’s the world’s most dominant and indispensable power. To keep rogue actors at bay and the chaos they unleash on security, America must be resolute in projecting strength and, if necessary, utilizing lethal force. A healthy and capable U.S. bomber fleet is vital to achieving these goals.
America’s Air Force is in the midst of tenuous transitions of smaller and older fleets to larger, newer, varied and more capable ones. Bombers are the tip of the spear to project air power, given that they are “unique instruments of power,” able to “strike targets with large volumes of kinetic firepower without requiring access to foreign bases and without…the vulnerability associated with regionally based land or sea forces,” according to Larry Stutzriem and Douglas Birkey of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
This transition in inventories and capabilities, along with training and readiness, has to be executed flawlessly because our enemies aren’t waiting until the shift is complete. Within the various weapons of war and war machine categories even within aircraft, there is nothing more important for projecting American power, deterrence, and strike capability than our bomber fleet. With the recent unveiling of the newest bomber the B-21 Raider, the United States is about to bring online the most lethal, capable, high-tech bomber the world has ever seen. This aircraft will be second to none with cutting-edge stealth technology. But there can be no gap in capability between fleets as the new bomber comes online. In the last mile of the bomber transition, there must be continuity.
Despite bombers’ vital role of keeping the peace and winning wars, the Air Force has seen its bomber fleet plummet from a high of over 400 aircraft at the end of the Cold War to today’s dangerously low level of 141. In 2021 alone, the Air Force retired 17 of the nation’s 62 B-1B Lancer bombers known as “The Bone,” contributing to the Air Force operating the smallest and oldest bomber fleet since its inception in 1947. Given the limited number of combat-ready bombers, it is necessary to enhance the capability and lethality of those that remain in service.
This staggering depletion of bomber numbers heightens the importance of modernizing the current capabilities of the Air Force’s bomber inventory, especially the conventionally-armed B-1. A versatile, combat-proven workhorse, this heavy bomber has supported our warfighters for decades, carrying out tens of thousands of missions given it can strike any target, anywhere, at any time.
The B-1 and the nuclear-capable B-2, and possibly the B-52, are scheduled to be replaced by the late 2030s and into the 2040s with the B-21 Raider, able eventually to be armed with both conventional and nuclear weapons. While being on time and within budget is a rarity for the Pentagon, which this program is to much credit, Congress must ensure a strong, modernized, and lethal fleet of B-1s until the very day the B-21 bombers are fully fielded and capable of deterring our enemies, especially China.
For deterrence to be credible, hard power is essential. Thankfully, The Bone has no problem delivering plenty of it. Its 75,000 pound payload is the largest of any aircraft in the United States Air Force’s inventory, allowing it to be equipped with a wide variety and large quantity of munitions. Those include the long-range, standoff missiles that would be critical in a fight against China: the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile. The B-1 is able to carry 24 of these missiles internally, with more mounted on its exterior. The ability to deploy with these missiles makes the B-1 well-suited for deterrence missions in the Pacific, where contested airspace and unyielding distances could necessitate the use of long-range standoff munitions.
Our adversaries are pulling ahead of us with the development of hypersonic weapons, and the Pentagon and Congress must have the sense of urgency to respond to these threats. China is testing hypersonic weapons at an alarming rate, and Russia has reportedly launched hypersonic weapons against Ukraine. Testing hypersonic weapons on the B-1 will serve as a powerful deterrent against China, Russia, and other adversaries who are also utilizing these lethal weapons to outmatch American airpower.
The United States cannot afford to be complacent in projecting strength and power, nor can the nation afford to have anything but the most capable and ready bomber fleet — a blend of old and new for the foreseeable future. We cannot retire B-1s before the next generation B-21 bomber comes fully online. China, Russia, and other rogue nations aren’t waiting for the completion of the B-21 prior to wreaking havoc around the world and they may seek to exploit any gap in combat power. Therefore, we must ensure the most seamless transition from the B-1 and B-2 to the B-21, the most capable fleet today with enhanced weapons systems, and accelerate our new assets to have the strongest bomber fleet of tomorrow.
Rep. Jodey Arrington serves in the U.S. House of Representatives for Texas’ 19th Congressional district and Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI.
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