The U.S. Air Force has struggled for years to develop a new long-range bomber. But with China’s growing anti-access capabilities, it may need one.
The U.S. Air Force has struggled for years to develop a new long-range bomber to complement its existing fleet of B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers dating from the 1960s, ’80s and ’90s, respectively.
The rise of China as a regional power compelled the Air Force, in 2006, to begin design work on a radar-evading “stealth” bomber capable of striking heavily-defended targets within the Chinese heartland from secure American bases in the Pacific. But the basic design of the so-called “Next-Generation Bomber” grew increasingly complex and potentially expensive – reportedly billions of dollars per copy. In 2009, then-U.S. Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the Next-Generation Bomber.
But the Air Force revived its bomber effort under new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The new “Long-Range Strike Bomber” would be slightly less sophisticated and therefore cheaper than the Next-Generation Bomber: just $550 million per copy for up to 100 copies, with production beginning in the early 2020s. The U.S. Congress approved the first $300 million in development funding late last year. The Pentagon has vowed to cancel the Long-Range Strike Bomber if the total projected program cost exceeds $55 billion. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman will compete for the contract, details of which are a closely guarded secret.
One man has played a central role in building the case for the new bomber. David Deptula retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general in 2010. In 36 years of service, he flew F-15 fighters, helped plan the air war over Afghanistan in 2001 – including long-range strikes by B-2 bombers – and later oversaw Pacific bomber operations. In a landmark 2004 exercise organized in part by Deptula, B-52s flying from the U.S. struck and sank a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship using “smart” guided weapons. In retirement, Deptula has continued advocating for bombers.
The Diplomat asked Deptula about the need for the bomber, the risks to the program and the technologies that could be included.
Why now? Why, during a period of defense cutbacks, is the Pentagon so determined to build a new bomber? What changed to make the bomber such a high priority?
Broadly speaking, nothing has changed; the need for a new bomber is not “new.” The 2001 [Quadrennial Defense Review] noted the challenges to American power projection that included: the potential for a surprise attack that would prevent U.S. forces from deploying to trouble spots in a timely manner; the dearth of viable U.S. bases within range of likely trouble spots in Asia; and the emergence of “anti-access” capabilities that could deny the U.S. access to overseas bases, airfields and ports.
Furthermore, some potential opponents have great strategic depth within which to hide mobile anti-access systems. To counter this, the 2001 QDR said we should develop and acquire “robust capabilities to conduct persistent surveillance, precision strike and maneuver at varying depths within denied areas” – what is this but a new stealth bomber?
The 2006 QDR restated these challenges to power projection and specifically called for the U.S. to “develop a new land-based, penetrating long-range strike capability to be fielded by 2018 while modernizing the current bomber force.” The 2010 QDR called for an expansion of the nation’s long-range strike capabilities, to include options for “fielding survivable, long-range surveillance and strike aircraft as part of a comprehensive, phased plan to modernize the bomber force.”
The January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance was consistent with [Department of Defense] logic going back 12 years, during which two presidents and three [secretaries of defense] have deemed a new bomber necessary. The guidance again noted the challenges that time, distance and anti-access threats represent to American power projection – certainly, the strategic environment has not become more benign since 2001. The guidance renewed the call for the development of a stealth bomber in order to overcome these challenges.