By the end of the year, we’ll know a lot more about the future of the Long Range Strike Bomber program, which promises to give the U.S. Air Force 100 new strategic stealth bombers. These new bombers will replace many of the USAF’s existing fleet of bombers, and give the Air Force the important capability of striking deep inside China or Russia.
The LRS-B is expected to make its central contribution in the Pacific, where it will serve as one of the focal points of the U.S. reconnaissance-strike complex. In a sense, the LRS-B is the first bomber in a very long time designed primarily to serve U.S. interests in the Pacific. But the 85-year history of modern strategic bombers in the Asia-Pacific has rarely worked out as aircraft designers intended. Here’s a look at how the demands of the region changed what the United States wanted to do with its bombers.
The Martin B-10, the first real strategic bomber operated by the United States, wasn’t specially designed to fight in the Pacific. Obsolete by the beginning of World War II, however, the Martin saw most of its action in Asia, including service with the air force of Nationalist China.
While the B-17 Flying Fortress is best remembered as the bomber that led the American contribution to the Combined Bomber Offensive over Europe, it was initially intended to serve as a maritime patrol aircraft in the vast expanses of the Pacific. Numerous B-17s fought in the Pacific, even from the opening days of the war, but their main contribution came as a strategic bomber in the European theater.
The B-29 was also initially intended for European operations, but its extensive range also made it suitable for fighting in Asia. The B-29 contributed most memorably to the strategic bomber offensive against Japan (flying both from China and from the Pacific), and later served in a strategic role against North Korea. The last B-29 derivatives (the Soviet-built Tu-4) left service with the Chinese air force in the 1970s.
The B-36 was strictly a bomber for the delivery of heavy ordnance, initially expected to be conventional bombs to Germany, but later nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. Along with the early jet bombers of the Cold War (the B-47 and B-58, and the abortive B-70), the B-36 was not intended for the Asia-Pacific, and never served there in anything but a nuclear deterrent role.
The B-52 was intended as such a nuclear bomber, but saw its most memorable service dropping conventional munitions on North Vietnam. The Air Force resisted the idea of using one of its most modern nuclear bombers in Vietnam, but the demands of Rolling Thunder and the Linebacker operations put the B-52 into a firmly conventional role. Since the 1970s, the B-52 has flown various missions, and it continues to play a role in U.S. strategic planning. The B-1B and the B-2 were also designed as nuclear penetration bombers, and like the B-52 have adapted to different missions in the post-Cold War environment.
The LRS-B has the potential to be something different; a linchpin in the system-of-systems that the United States hopes can crack China’s A2/AD defenses. For the first time since the B-17, the LRS-B offers a bomber specifically designed to be part of America’s battle plan for the Pacific. Assuming that the Pentagon can manage costs, the LRS-B may become the most visible (and invisible) component of the U.S. pivot to Asia.