Rethinking Deep Strike in the 21st Century

Operation Odyssey Dawn

Political leaders in the United States need to start a serious conversation about alternatives for new long-range strike capability. Unfortunately, to date, the vast majority of those who are speaking have already decided that the solution is a new manned aircraft—in particular the proposed Air Force Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B). Writing in The National Interest, Representatives J. Randy Forbes and Chris Stewart argued that Congress must push for rapid development of the Air Force LRS-B. They state this effort is essential to ensure the United States can pursue more mobile targets deep in Chinese or Iranian territory. Robert Martinage recently proposed the Pentagon “accelerate development and expand procurement of the LRS-B” and add the mission of “stand-off precision attack” to the bomber’s capabilities.

Before we jump on the bandwagon of the LRS-B, we should consider its ability to execute the planned missions, its procurement timeline, its cost, and then potential alternatives.


The requirement for a long-range strike capability in the era of increasingly effective anti-access weapons systems is clear. It is less clear that this capability requires a manned aircraft. Proponents argue that the United States must be able to “contend with more mobile sets of targets,” “hold targets at risk,” and finally, “to hit hardened and deeply buried targets.” Let’s consider each in turn.

The idea that a manned aircraft will be able to strike mobile targets is deeply flawed. We need only look back to Operation Desert Storm to see why. According to a RAND’s Special Operations Force and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets, the coalition air forces saw 42 Scud launches but could only get into position to drop ordnance eight times. The author noted that the commercial vehicles on the highways provided significant background clutter that made the Scuds hard to target. However, the British Special Air Services reported that actual launches could be seen by ground observers from 30 miles away. In addition, Allied forces had absolute air supremacy as well as hundreds of aircraft that could range freely over the entire country. Despite all these advantages, the Gulf War Air Power Survey concluded, “There is no indisputable proof that Scud mobile launchers—as opposed to high-fidelity decoys, trucks or other objects with Scud-like signature—were destroyed by fixed-wing aircraft.” They failed to get a single confirmed kill despite the fact it took 30 minutes to erect, fuel, and launch a liquid-fueled Scud.

While technology has advanced greatly in the last 20 years, hunting mobile missiles remains a time/distance problem. Hunting mobile systems in China presents a much more complex problem than hunting Scuds in Iraq. First, the Chinese systems are solid–fueled so can be erected and launched in under 10 minutes. Second, the range of these systems is greater and thus the launch sites can be spread over a much greater geographic region. Third, the terrain in China is much more complex. Solid-fueled systems can be hidden in garages, camouflaged as commercial vehicles, or even simply parked under tents and prepared to fire. The vehicle has to appear only a few minutes before actual launch. To “contend” with this set of mobile targets, the United States would have to maintain enough aircraft in the contested airspace of China to detect, classify, and attack a missile system anywhere within thousands of square miles of complex terrain in a matter of minutes. That brings us to the final point. China has a sophisticated, integrated air-defense system. Proponents have never been clear how a large manned bomber will survive while orbiting in daylight in heavily defended Chinese airspace. Or do we assume the Chinese will be polite enough only to launch at night when they have to rely on their steadily increasing ability to see stealth platforms? In short, the idea a manned stealth platform is necessary to deal with mobile targets in China defies logic. Even against mobile targets in Iran, the number of platforms required to observe, identify, target, and hit a mobile system in less than 10 minutes is very large—well beyond any U.S. defense budget we can envision these days.

The second critical mission—to hold targets at risk—seems to apply to stationary targets which are to be engaged with by stand-off precision attack. Commander Phil Pournelle has written

In the case of the air-launched weapons, the aircraft is just a truck; neither the aircraft nor the pilot has any role in guiding the weapon to the target after release. In fact, the aircraft must release its weapons and run away to survive in the face of advanced air-defense systems.

He rightly questions whether a manned aircraft is the most effective way to attack targets. An obvious alternative is a cruise missile. Currently, the range of such systems is limited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, the U.S. government stated that Russia has violated that treaty. In light of Russia’s action and the changing strategic situation in the Pacific, should the United States unilaterally restrict its development of long-range cruise missiles? Further, the convergence of new technologies (e.g., nano, materials, energetics, information, additive manufacturing) should provide major improvements in the range and destructive power of cruise missiles and drones in the next decade. The United States must not deny itself these increasingly powerful weapons if other major powers refuse to do the same.

The third mission—striking hardened or deeply buried targets is also about the weapon delivered and not the platform delivering it. The primary rationale for using a bomber for this mission is the weight of the payload necessary to penetrate the target. However, this assumes the best way to attack such a target is to strike its center. Since deeply buried or hardened targets are usually command and control facilities or special weapons, the mission can also be accomplished by sealing the assets in and cutting communications between them and the outside world. In short, there are different—and perhaps less expensive—ways with a higher probability of success than direct attack. After all, Cheyenne Mountain and Kosvinsky Mountain were built to withstand nuclear attack. These purpose-built facilities can be augmented by installing military facilities in working or abandoned deep mines, which can include a network of tunnels that go miles deep into a mountain. Against this type of target a pattern of smaller, smart weapons targeted at the communications and support nodes essential to the operation of these facilities makes better sense.

Procurement timelines mean increasing vulnerability

Procurement timelines must be part of the discussion. While the planned LRS-B might do well against today’s defensive systems, the real question is how it will do against the systems that will exist when it reaches operational capability. In 2008, General John Corley, then Chief of Air Combat Command, stated a manned bomber could be available in 2018—a 10-year development and production cycle. The Air Force does not agree. Today, the U.S. Air Force projects an initial operational capability for the LRS-B of 2030. (It also plans to extend the operational lives of the B-52 and B-1 out to 2040 and the B-2 out to 2058.) This is in keeping with the timeline for the B-2. The B-2 started as the Advanced Technology Bomber in 1979 and reached initial operational capability on 1 January 1997 and Full Operational Capability on December 17, 2003—or about 23 years after serious development commenced. However, the F-35 has taken much longer. According to the F-35 program’s website, the F-35 aircraft had its origins in “several programs from the 1980s and early 1990s.” The first squadron will not achieve initial operating capability until July 2015 or about 25 years after the program’s origins. However, as of the end of October 2014, the Pentagon’s Acquisition Chief Frank Kendall doubted it will make the July 2015 date. His skepticism seems to be supported by continuing reports of software problems. Critics think key components of the software will not be operational until 2019.

Even if the United States meets the Initial Operational Capability of 2030 for LRS-B, one has to question the viability of stealth at that point. Defense News carried a story in November 2014 showing a new radar China claims defeats stealth. In addition, the continuing development of “passive coherent location” systems provide another possible method for detecting stealthy aircraft. The high probability that stealthy aircraft can be seen and intercepted within the next decades makes the decision to focus on a few, exquisite, but extremely costly systems questionable at best.

And given the steady increase in range of unmanned, autonomous systems, China has the option of using precision weapons to attack our very small bomber fleet on the ground at its home station. In 2003, a hobbyist flew a drone across the Atlantic. Today commercial companies do so routinely. We have to assume China will be able to reach U.S. bases with small, hard to detect, autonomous drones by 2030.


In 2012, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norman Schwartz projected a cost of $550M per aircraft for B-3s. Schwartz’s cost estimate per aircraft did not include development costs. Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s Chief Weapons tester from 2001 until his retirement in 2005, is skeptical. He thinks $2B per aircraft is a more accurate estimate. Interestingly, a 1997 GAO report showed while initial estimates for the B-2 were $456M in 1997 dollars, the actual cost was $2.1B per aircraft in 1997 dollars. Given the long-term trend that shows replacement aircraft cost much more than the version they are replacing, a reasonable argument can be made that the LRS-B will cost up to $3B per aircraft. And of course, we should include the extremely high operating cost of stealthy manned systems. According to U.S. Air Force data, the B-2 costs $164,000 per flight hour to operate. Despite frequent promises to the contrary, new aircraft hourly operating costs have consistently been higher than the aircraft they replaced.

Small, smart, and many – a different approach

The high probability that declining defense procurement budgets combined with rapidly escalating procurement and personnel costs will both delay the LRS-B and reduce the total number purchased should lead a prudent planner to consider other possible ways to accomplish the LRS-B missions. The convergence of several new technologies will make small, smart, long-range, powerful, and smart missiles and drones a reality.

The 2012 Pentagon budget shows Tactical Tomahawks costs $1.1M per Tactical Tomahawk for a buy of only 196 missiles. The variant currently being purchased for the Navy features allows the controller to switch targets during flight to pre-programmed alternate targets or redirect it to a new target. It can also loiter over the battlefield, while waiting for a more critical target The missile carries a 1,000-pound warhead and can be fired by a variety of surface and submarine platforms.

Older model Tomahawks are about $600,000 each at low rate production. If one assumes it is possible to reduce the price by 16 percent by going to high rate production, a single B-3 would pay for 4,000 Tomahawks. This is if you think we will get the next generation bomber for less than the last generation bomber. Given the historical record of bomber costs, it is more reasonable to assume we will pay at least 50 percent more per aircraft for the new generation. Thus we could buy 6,000 Tomahawks for the price of a single B-2.

And of course, we will not be purchasing Tomahawks but a descendent that uses the exceptional advances in nano-energetics (read explosives), fuel efficiencies, materials, manufacturing processes, and artificial intelligence to provide significantly greater range, accuracy, and destructive power.

In 2002, scientists were reporting that nano-energetic materials were producing twice the explosive power of TNT for the same weight. The explosive capabilities of newer materials remains classified but even the doubling of explosive power has a militarily significant impact for cruise missiles. In addition, additive manufacturing is going to dramatically reduce the cost of production in many fields. While it is highly unlikely it could radically reduce the price of an LRS-B, the much simpler production needed for a TLAM replacement should be subject to dramatic cost reductions. In November 2013, the USC School of Engineering revealed a method for 3D-printing multi-material objects in minutes instead of hours. Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of military space for Lockheed, has suggested that a satellite manufactured using AM will cost 40 percent less than current models.

Clearly if one can make a very large object like a bomber stealthy, one should be able to do so with a much smaller missile. And of course the fact that one can launch thousands of missiles for the cost of a single bomber greatly complicates the efforts of the defense. Given projected defense budgets, it is imperative the United States gets on the right side of the cost curve in its competition with China. Rather than allowing China to focus its defense on a few bombers, we can force it to defend its entire perimeter against potential swarms of missiles.

In fact, a cruise missile may not be the right system to perform the stated missions of a manned bomber. It may be that other forms of autonomous drones will be a better choice. The key point is that we need to explore these options. Putting more money into the manned bomber is much like the Navy’s efforts to improve the battleship post-WWI. Due to massive investments, the Navy doubled the effective range of the battleships guns, made it faster, and better protected with a longer cruise radius. Yet, by WWII, the battleship was largely irrelevant to the outcome of the Pacific naval battles. It had been superseded by the small, smart, and cheap systems of its era—aircraft. Just as Japan felt it could reach out and destroy our few battleships in their home ports, China may feel it can eliminate our few bombers on the ground. In contrast, they will know they cannot destroy thousands of cruise missiles or drones that can operate from a wide variety of platforms and locations.

The Political Problem

It is essential we start this conversation now. The Pentagon has already invested major funds in the LRS-B program: $258.7M in FY-13, $500M in FY-14, and proposed almost $1B in FY-15. The Air Force plans to award the bomber contract to a single build team in early 2015. On 27 January 2015, Boeing held a reception on Capitol Hill “to provide congressional staff an update on current efforts to maintain and modernize the Air Force bomber fleet.” The last few decades have shown how difficult it is to stop a program of record, particularly when it is being built in a majority of Congressional districts. The B-1, B-2, and F-35 programs demonstrated the political value of a wide distribution of contracts. In fact, one of the key lessons defense companies have taken away from the last couple of decades is that any major program must distribute sub-contracts widely to insure the program is not cancelled.

Business Insider has provided an excellent map showing the economic impact of the F-35. The fact that 18 states draw more than $100M in benefits from the F-35 and only four do not have any contracts shows the impressive political power Lockheed has built to support the program. While distributing sub-contracts to as many Congressional districts as possible provides political protection for defense programs, the practice obviously makes it more difficult to actually build the system. Unfortunately, it makes it even more difficult to kill it. If we fail to have a serious discussion concerning the need for a new long-range bomber soon, whichever company wins the contract for the LRS-B will develop a map that looks a lot like the one for the F-35. Then, it will simply be too late to consider alternatives—no matter their merits relative to the LRS-B.


T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.