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Currently, the U.S. has a strategic bomber force of just 141 crewed platforms, roughly half of which are B-52 Stratofortresses that date back to the 1960s. This is the oldest and smallest U.S. bomber force since the Air Force was established as an independent service in 1947. It gets worse — as the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies has pointed out, only 59 bombers are estimated to be mission-capable on any given day.
Even if the Air Force buys 100 B-21 Raiders, which is said to be the minimum quantity under consideration, the overall bomber force is not going to grow appreciably based on the current bomber roadmap. This is because the B-2 Spirits and the 1980s-era supersonic but non-stealthy B-1 Lancers will be phased out under the roadmap, probably by some point in the mid-2030s. The U.S. would be left with the 100 B-21s along with 75 modernized B-52s for a sum total of 175 crewed or optionally-crewed strategic bombers — just 34 more than today’s abysmally low number.
A Bomber Force Can Thin Quickly in War
Although the B-21s will be more capable in most respects than the bombers that came before, allowing for fewer numbers to achieve greater effects, the war in Ukraine has starkly demonstrated the importance of mass and replenishment. The U.S. has strained to meet Ukraine’s rapacious demand for Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, among other weapons, due to limited stockpiles and stilted production.
If some B-21s are lost in combat, there will not be time to build replacements. Attrition is real in full-blown conflicts, as Allied bomber crews were acutely aware in World War II. Known as Black Thursday, the Oct. 14, 1943 raid on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing plants involved 291 American Eighth Air Force bombers. German interceptors and anti-aircraft fire shot down 60, and another 17 were either wrecked upon landing back in England or were so badly mauled that they never flew again. The losses represented an astounding attrition rate of 26%, and this did not factor in the 121 bombers that needed repair from battle damage. More than 600 airmen died, and many others were wounded.
That one-day thinning equates to roughly half the current U.S. bomber fleet. With such scant numbers, losing even a few bombers today would make a meaningful dent, raising questions about the country’s ability to sustain a warfighting posture in a drawn-out conflict with a major power.
It would be naïve to think that the West’s enemies in future conflicts will limit themselves to aerial interception and anti-aircraft fire. Cyberwarfare will pose a serious threat. With a small number of ultra-high-tech platforms set to eventually constitute most of the U.S. strategic bomber force, determined foes will invent new means of disabling the bombers before they even get into the air.
The Need for Redundancy
Under the current deployment concept, the B-21s will return to their home bases after executing each mission rather than forward deploy. Because plans call for the B-1s and B-2s to be retired as the B-21s integrate into the force, the new bombers are slated to be bedded down at the air bases where those legacy bombers are now stationed — Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
Nestled in the country’s heartland, these bases enjoy a naturally protective geography. Yet in war nothing is sacrosanct, and each base has only a single long runway capable of accommodating the takeoff and landing of heavy bombers. Because these lengths of concrete are indispensable, and the intent is to always home-port the new bombers, the three B-21 bases are likely to represent a particularly difficult security challenge.
Malevolent actors will seek to exploit any weaknesses, and going after a handful of runways would be a lot easier than trying to take down a squadron of airborne stealth bombers. It is not unfair to raise concerns about saboteurs operating under cover in sleeper cells, or disgruntled airmen vulnerable to being co-opted by foreign agents. In a nightmare scenario, one of the country’s most sophisticated weapon systems could be neutralized on its home turf.
It is worth noting that on Dec. 10, 2022, a B-2 Spirit experienced an inflight emergency followed by a hard landing and an onboard fire at Whiteman Air Force Base. All B-2s were grounded pending a review of the accident. Whiteman’s runway was not cleared of the damaged bomber until 11 days after the accident, a potential harbinger of the runway impairment an enemy might attempt. If flight operations were required, the obstructing B-2 would likely have been bulldozed to the side in the same way disabled carrier aircraft are pushed overboard when fouling a flight deck. Expect enemies to try to inflict longer-lasting damage on runways.
While the terms of the grounding allow for the B-2s to fly if an urgent national security requirement demands it, the type’s safety stand-down makes the case for maintaining a bomber fleet of at least two or three types. The current Air Force bomber mix, though egregiously small, includes the B-2, B-1, and B-52, which ensures that if one type experiences a serious endemic problem the the other types will remain available.
Some analysts will say limited numbers of bombers and associated bases have worked just fine since the end of the Cold War. But matters are different now that major-power competition is back. For historical perspective, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Strategic Air Command, the legendary Cold War-era U.S. bomber force, put 1,436 bombers on alert at a global network of air bases. Meanwhile land- and submarine-launched missile programs were underway, forming the early stages of the nuclear triad.
Some of the bombers standing alert in 1962 were B-52s, part of a total buy of 744. Even though the Stratofortress was then considered state-of-the-art, the prevailing philosophy was that large quantities were essential to success.
The Mitchell Institute, the country’s leading air power think tank led by former fighter pilot and air power visionary Dave Deptula, recently opined that the Air Force should retain its B-1 and B-2 bombers for longer than planned. Those bombers, it argues, can be upgraded to extend their useful service lives — not unlike the B-52s, which are even older. To safeguard the country’s security interests, it says that the Air Force must have a minimum of 270 bombers. That is nearly 100 more than the 175 bombers currently envisioned in the bomber roadmap. It is also 45 more than the 225 bombers representing the Air Force’s stated minimum to fulfill mission requirements, and 20 more than the 250 bombers reported as necessary in the eyes of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), the organization that oversees the U.S. bomber fleet.
That these numbers skew far lower than historical levels, and that they are clustered in a relatively narrow range, suggests that they derive from a grudging acceptance of perceived political and budgetary constraints. This is unfortunate, because it is probable that supporters of the B-21, including at least some leaders of the above-mentioned organizations, would prefer a higher number.
Notably, on March 7, Air Force Gen. Thomas Bussiere, the commander of AFGSC, gave a rousing endorsement of the B-21 at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado. Speaking of the B-21, he said: “The capabilities and technology integrated into that weapon system is second to none. It will be the most advanced strike platform ever designed or built on the planet.”
B-21 Raider: Redefine What Is Possible
With such enthusiasm at the operational level, it would be a shame to end up with a borderline number of highly promising B-21s owing to a chronically broken budget and acquisition process that has long failed to undertake a needed all-encompassing reassessment and reordering of national priorities. The irony, of course, is that the genesis of the B-21 can be traced to Jack Northrop’s faith in the idea that it is possible to do the impossible.
To its credit, Northrop Grumman looks to have adopted its founder’s guiding principle, not simply as a catchy public relations slogan but as its daily mantra. On the company’s Advanced Technology and Innovation Web page there is a stunning artist’s concept set against the majestic backdrop of deep space that depicts the Habitat and Logistics Outpost, a project that is planned as the first component of NASA’s lunar gateway, the steppingstone to an enduring human presence on another world. The explanatory text below the image opens with the declarative statement: “For some, the word impossible ends discussions. For us, it’s a starting point.”
Indeed, the operative mindset that has underpinned the B-21’s technological breakthroughs rightly conjures up the vision of the company’s founder, which in turn ought to serve as a model way of problem-solving for those deciding how many bombers to buy. Wouldn’t it be nice if officials’ decision-making could live up to technologists’ miracle-making?
In fairness, too many variables exist for anyone to say for sure what number of bombers and bases it would take to defend the homeland and our allies. It’s important guesswork, though, that warrants an openness to novel approaches. The decision is destined to have a profound influence on the country’s future security and whatever the ultimate number is, prudence suggests that there should be a cushion just in case.
In 1989, at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. bomber inventory stood at 411. With Russia reasserting itself and China well on its way to peer status with a potential stealth bomber of its own, today’s threats are certainly no less than back then.
Maybe that’s a starting point to crunch numbers – not only for bombers and their bases, but for the weapons that would equip the bombers. Having a sufficient quantity of bombers requires having a commensurate quantity of munitions.
Philip Handleman is a pilot and aviation author/photographer. With retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr., he cowrote Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World War II. Mr. Handleman’s photograph of the Air Force Thunderbirds was featured on the postage stamp honoring the 50th anniversary of the Department of the Air Force in 1997.