When China began testing its first aircraft carrier earlier this month, Washington was quick to issue a stern rebuke, scolding Beijing for its lack of transparency regarding the vessel’s purpose. ‘We would welcome any kind of explanation,’ US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
But in an increasingly tense western Pacific, both the United States and China are guilty of obfuscation about their military capabilities. It recently came to light the Pentagon appears to have lied about the condition of its small fleet of radar-evading B-2 stealth bombers, one of its most important weapon systems in its campaign of deterrence against a rising China.
The US Air Force possesses some 160 long-range bombers – the biggest fleet of bombers in the world. But only 20 are the latest B-2 model, designed to be largely invisible to enemy radars. The Air Force stations a dozen or so bombers at a time at its large air base on Guam, where they form a major part of the United States’ Pacific arsenal.
In 2008, a B-2 crashed at Guam, reducing the stealth fleet to its current level. In the wake of the accident, critics bemoaned the Pentagon’s tendency to concentrate increasing combat power in a decreasing number of ultra-expensive ‘platforms.’
In February 2010, there was another incident involving a Guam-based B-2 – a fire in one of the bomber’s two engines. At the time, the Air Force reported the damage as ‘minor.’ And that was the last any outsider heard of the incident for more than a year.
Then, last week, the Air Force admitted that the damaged bomber had been so badly burned that it had been unable to fly for more than a year. The damage was, in fact, ‘horrific.’ Engineers had to custom-manufacture replacement components at Guam in order to partially rebuild the plane and allow it to return to the United States for more extensive rework on Aug. 16.
In other words, for 18 months America’s stealth-bomber fleet included 19 working airplanes, rather than 20, as most people believed. The Air Force’s deliberate obfuscation boosted the B-2 fleet’s apparent strength by more than 5 percent.
China’s strategists ‘believe that as the weaker party it must use ambiguity to compensate for technological inferiority,’ says Andrew Erickson, a professor and analyst at the US Naval War College. Despite broad (though eroding) superiority over the People’s Liberation Army, the Pentagon appears to have misled about the condition of its stealth bombers apparently for a similar reason: to project an exaggerated image of strength.
Rather than misrepresenting the delicacy of its dangerously over-concentrated combat power, the United States could take Erickson’s advice, and ‘consider shifting at least some operations from large, tightly-grouped targets … to smaller, dispersed, networked elements.’
As far as bombers are concerned, in the future the Air Force should build more than 21 at a time, stresses Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Cartwright. ‘Building five or 10 of something isn’t going to do something for us.’
The Pentagon aims to build as many as 100 new, stealthy ‘Long-Range Strike’ bombers to begin replacing existing planes, starting in around a decade. With that many new stealth bombers, hopefully the Air Force won’t feel compelled to act like China, and hide it when one of its planes suffers an accident.