The US military’s plan to defeat Chinese air defences could be doomed by budget cuts, just a year after it was conceived.
The so-called AirSea Battle concept, developed by US Navy and Air Force planners starting last year, anticipates Air Force bombers and Navy submarines working together to ‘roll back’ the radars and Surface-to-Air Missiles of coastal powers such as China and Iran.
The scheme was successfully tested during the opening hours of US-led operations over Libya in March. The guided-missile submarine USS Florida launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan radars and SAMs, while three B-2 bombers flew more than 6,000 miles from their base in the central US state of Missouri to drop satellite-guided bombs at some of the same targets.
The result was a sharp degradation of Libya’s ability to defend its airspace against US and NATO attackers.
But while the combination of Florida and three B-2s was adequate for Libya’s antiquated defences, a more sophisticated opponent such as China could require more – and better – bombers.
To that end, the Pentagon has launched development of a new, radar-evading, long-range bomber to replace a portion of today’s 160-strong force of B-2s, swing-wing B-1s and veteran B-52s beginning sometime in the next decade. The ‘B-3’ new bomber could cost as much as $40 billion to develop and produce.
But that might be too high a price for Pentagon budgets. As part of across-the-board spending cuts proposed by the Barack Obama Administration and the opposition Republican Party in control of the House of Representatives, US military spending could decline by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade. While the accelerating troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan could account for much of the savings, some equipment programmes could be cut as well.
The first hint the new bomber was on the chopping block came from US Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the Pentagon’s second-ranking officer. Calling himself a ‘bomber-hater,’ Cartwright questioned the Pentagon’s ability to produce a new bomber affordably.
Notably, Cartwright didn’t question the need for a bomber, only the military’s ability to manage its development. ‘I think you have to have a bomber,’ he said. ‘I'm questioning what it is we’re building, and what attributes’ it should possess.
But a recent report from an influential US Navy strategist questions the entire rationale for a new bomber and the AirSea Battle doctrine. ‘We should not adopt an air-sea strike plan against the mainland, because that is a sure way to start World War IV,’ said retired Capt. Wayne Hughes, currently teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School.
‘We need only enough access to threaten a war at sea that destroys Chinese trade and curtails energy imports,’ – Hughes continued. For that, he proposed, a new fleet of small, coast-hugging warships should suffice.