Addressing the press at the Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition I attended last week, US Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, argued that there’s a lot of life left in the country’s fleet of B-52 bombers – the backbone of the United States’ long-range strike force.
Citing the current H-models’ use in providing close air support in Afghanistan and the older G-models’ use in Desert Storm, Kowalski said that he believes the bombers have proven they are capable of prosecuting missions ‘across the spectrum of conflict’ despite the fact that they were produced in the early-1960s.
While the expected in-service life of the air frames extended to approximately 2040, Kowalski acknowledged that components are now aging faster than the platform. Citing the replacement of strategic radar as an example, he conceded that component-based aging is starting to put a ‘big load on maintainers,’ especially with the logistical demands of supporting the bomber presence in Guam.
Switching to plans for the next long-range strike bomber, Kowalski said that the decision on whether the platform should be manned or unmanned shouldn’t be perceived as a binary one; seemingly supporting the often quoted ‘optionally manned’ requirement.
According to Kowalski, he hasn’t seen ‘a good argument in terms of global strike mission’ of the platform being unmanned. Furthermore, with a cost cap of about $500 million, Kowlaski questioned whether there would be sufficient confidence in survivability and capability for an unmanned platform at this time.
Finally, he iterated a number of key challenges his command faces. Two of the biggest included: 1) How to strike the proper balance between advancing their mission in the nuclear space without detracting conventional force capabilities; 2) How to sustain and enhance the command’s capabilities while still maintaining the funds to modernize amid looming defence budget reductions.
Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat’s Pentagon (accredited) correspondent. His work has been featured by Gulf News, ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe and The Journal of Energy Security. He blogs at Asia–Pacific Reporting, can be reached at [email protected], and followed@aseanreporting.