Why the New Bomber is a Good Investment
Should the bomber go the way of the battleship? That is what T.X. Hammes recently suggested here at War on the Rocks (“Rethinking Deep Strike in the 21st Century”). Hammes urged policymakers to abandon the U.S. Air Force’s Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program. Recalling procurement debacles like the B-2 and F-35 programs, Hammes argued that policymakers and planners should avoid the risk of another such acquisition fiasco and instead give standoff missiles and the emerging technology of autonomous drones a chance. Hammes compared the Air Force’s effort to field another manned bomber with the Navy’s attempt after World War I to hold on to the battleship, only to see that increasingly costly platform surpassed by a new technology, swarms of aircraft. However, this essay will show that missile-only alternatives are more speculative, more risky, and much more expensive methods of delivering large volumes of firepower against heavily defended targets, an essential capability the United States will need if it is to maintain deterrence and stability in the face of increasingly sophisticated challengers around the world.
The need for long-range strike
Hammes stated, “The requirement for a long-range strike capability in the era of increasingly effective anti-access weapons systems is clear.” This point is indisputable. The ability of future potential adversaries (and not just China) to attack and suppress forward air and naval bases and surface warships with precision missiles threatens to negate the massive investment the United States has made over many decades in relatively short-range tactical airpower and missiles.
In the case of the Western Pacific, by next decade China will have the capacity to project a large volume of precision firepower out roughly 2,000 kilometers from China’s coast and thus push U.S. Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft, along with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles deployed on surface ships, out of range of China’s military and command infrastructure (Iran may gain a similar capability by next decade). The U.S. Pacific Fleet’s two guided missile submarines (due for retirement next decade) could launch roughly 300 Tomahawks, a wholly inadequate strike capacity against a challenging opponent. The Navy’s attack submarines could add a few hundred more Tomahawks but only at the risk of sacrificing their critical anti-ship and anti-submarine missions.
Thus long-range strike may very well be the only remaining useful military capability available to U.S. policymakers and commanders against opponents with their own long-range missile forces. Having the ability to strike the assets and conditions most valued by an adversary anywhere they are located is critical to deterring adversary misbehavior and for prevailing in a conflict should deterrence fail. Failing to have this capability – in other words, leaving the adversary with a sanctuary for production, organization, and training – is a recipe for defeat. The ability to deliver a large volume of sustained firepower against an adversary – his military forces, infrastructure, internal security forces, or even the personal interests of the adversary’s leadership – is a powerful tool for dissuading that adversary against aggressive behavior in the first place, the fundamental goal of deterrence.
U.S. commanders will need a stealthy long-endurance aircraft like LRS-B for maritime surveillance and strike in order to prosecute a war at sea against an enemy fleet. Should China, for example, have the capability next decade of knocking out U.S. air and naval bases in the Western Pacific, its forces would then be able to establish air superiority out to perhaps 1,500 kilometers (the combat radius of its Flanker and J-20 strike-fighters). It would then presumably be too risky for the Navy’s non-stealthy P-8 Poseidon and MQ-4 maritime surveillance aircraft to operate in this denied zone. The LRS-B might be the only aircraft able to fly there, identify enemy surface naval targets, and either strike them or pass them off to U.S. and allied attack submarines.
U.S. planners should pursue a capability to target mobile missiles and their transporter-erector-launchers (TELs). This is a very challenging mission, but the United States will need this capability if it is to achieve fundamental campaign objectives such as reopening sea lines of communication and protecting the global commons in the face of adversary long-range land-based anti-ship missiles and airpower. In a recent essay for Breaking Defense, I proposed an operational concept using miniature autonomous search and strike missiles that would be deployed from stealthy U.S. bombers to hunt for TELs and thus, at least temporarily, suppress long-range anti-ship missiles. A large and sustained air campaign (described below) could suppress adversary air defenses to the point when around-the-clock suppression of TELs could be possible.
The larger point of that article was to show that it would be relatively inexpensive to add this capability to the LRS-B’s portfolio of missions. The ability to target mobile missiles would threaten the large investments adversaries have made in this concept, threaten a sanctuary he may have planned on, and disrupt his long-range anti-ship operations – something the United States must achieve if it is to meet a fundamental campaign objective. The new National Security Strategy of the United States recommits to the goal of protecting the global commons. Military planners have a duty to devise capabilities that respond to policymaker’s priorities, even when they are challenging to achieve.
Costs and risks of the LRS-B program
Expecting the LRS-B program to resemble the poor experience of the B-2 and F-35 programs is employing the wrong analogy. Both of those programs were at the edge of technology and thus took great technical risks, with large cost overruns the result. With LRS-B by contrast, program managers are allowing very little technical risk. Indeed, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the new bomber might already be designed and nearing production.
In 2012, a top Air Force acquisition official described how the LRS-B program is using subsystems already in use on the F-22 and F-35 aircraft. Managers are restricting the use of unproven subsystems and technology in the new bomber in order to reduce risk and improve the odds of hitting the unit fly-away cost target of $550 million (2010 dollars). A 2010 report, written by Mark Gunzinger for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, further described how the new bomber could make use of existing systems such as the F-35’s sensors and combat systems.
If the Pentagon purchases 100 LRS-Bs, what capability will it have acquired? We don’t know LRS-B’s payload capacity. If it matches the B-2’s, an LRS-B will be able to deliver 80 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs, with up to five-meter accuracy (a JDAM kit currently costs about $25,000; the Pentagon plans to have over 217,000 in its inventory). We should also assume that LRS-B will be able to employ air-to-surface missiles, decoys, and air defense suppression weapons.
For a large-scale conventional air campaign, let us assume that 70 bombers are available with 35 flying each day. This results in a capacity to strike 2,800 aim points every day, or almost 20,000 aim points a week, for an open-ended period of time. To put this in context, during the six weeks of the 1991 air war against Iraq (Operation Desert Storm), coalition air forces attacked 35,085 targets (some consisting of more than one aim point). The sustained strike capacity of the LRS-B fleet will substantially exceed that of all the coalition airpower assembled for Desert Storm. The capacity to precisely strike over 80,000 aim points per month, month after month, anywhere in the world, and in several theaters simultaneously should be a strong factor bolstering deterrence.
What is the future for LRS-B’s stealthiness, a top program priority and a requirement for mission success? Stealthiness is not a yes or no question but rather a function of radar cross section combined with route planning, the ability to sense and avoid threats, electronic attack support, deception, and air defense suppression techniques. There is concern that greatly increased computer processing power will allow VHF and UHF spectrum radars to now be useful for targeting previously stealthy aircraft. However it is small tactical fighter aircraft and cruise missiles, with their vertical and horizontal stabilizer tail surfaces, that are most vulnerable to this emerging counter-stealth technology. Large tailless aircraft like the B-2, RQ-180, and presumably LRS-B are much better positioned to retain their stealthiness across the broad spectrum of radar frequencies. Those who are concerned about the decay of radar stealthiness should favor large wingless aircraft like the new bomber which will very likely stay relevant for longer than other aircraft types.
If the LRS-B program is well-managed and achieves it cost goals, it is reasonable to expect to pay $65 billion or less for 100 bombers. This number would include additional development and fielding costs plus inflation. But let us assume for the moment that the program suffers from problems that raise the cost 50 percent to $100 billion. Let us also assume that counter-stealth advances force the new bomber out of service after 25 years (the Air Force plans to operate its current bombers for at least 50 to 80 years). Even with these pessimistic assumptions, the program would constitute a trivial burden on defense spending over the service life of the aircraft. If the United States spends $600 billion per year (in constant dollars) on defense over the next 25 years, acquiring 100 of the new bombers for $100 billion would sum to less than 0.7 percent of defense spending over that period. For that small burden, policymakers and commanders would obtain a very impressive strike capacity, with great benefits for deterrence and stability.
Where are those missiles?
Replicating the new bomber’s strike capacity with a standoff missile would require the Pentagon to design and acquire a weapon it has never contemplated before. And the cost of delivering sustained firepower with such missiles that matched that of the new bomber fleet would be grossly more expensive than the LRS-B program.
We should begin by dismissing the Tomahawk cruise missile as a point of reference. When China’s land-based missile forces and airpower are able to suppress surface targets (including warships) out to 2,000 kilometers (likely by next decade), U.S. military forces would need a land-attack missile with a range of at least 4,000 kilometers in order to launch from a relatively secure distance and strike targets significantly inland. This is two and half times Tomahawk’s range of 1,600 kilometers. With the exception of its strategic nuclear missiles (currently Minuteman and Trident, both restricted by the New START Treaty), the United States possesses no such missile and never has. It has been three decades since the U.S. has designed and fielded a theater-range missile. The last such missile, the nuclear armed Pershing II (banned in 1987 by the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty), had a range of 1,770 kilometers, short of these requirements.
What would be the cost of a new missile with a range of 4,000 kilometers and possessing up to five-meter accuracy, matching JDAM’s performance? No one knows since it has never been tried. A recent report from RAND estimated that rebuilding the Pershing II force would cost $18.4 million per missile (2011 dollars). As noted above, the U.S. would need a missile with more than twice the range of the Pershing II, implying a larger and more expensive missile. Let us give missile advocates a large benefit of the doubt and assume that the U.S. could build a 4,000-kilometer ballistic missile for $20 million (in 1982 the Pershing II program was cited by the Congressional Budget Office for cost overruns and mismanagement; it is not only aircraft programs that suffer from such problems). For $100 billion, a very bad outcome for the LRS-B program, the Pentagon could acquire 5,000 “Pershing III” missiles. The new bomber fleet could deliver more firepower in one day than this investment in missiles.
Missile advocates may argue that cruise missiles would be much less expensive than a Pershing III ballistic missile. This is likely although we still don’t know what a 4,000-kilometer cruise missile would cost because none has ever been produced. The Navy continues to purchase Tomahawks at $1.8 million per missile. Again giving missile advocates the benefit of the doubt and assuming the United States could acquire a cruise missile with 2.5 times the Tomahawk’s range for $2 million, the Pentagon would get 50,000 missiles for $100 billion, the bad outcome for the LRS-B program. As calculated above, the LRS-B fleet, using conservative assumptions for campaign planning, could strike that many aim points in under 18 days and then continue with the campaign. Under the missile-only option, the United States would have to end its campaign. Giving missile advocates every benefit in the assumptions, there is no way the missile option can match the LRS-B fleet’s sustained strike performance.
Can new technologies reduce missile costs?
Missile advocates hope that emerging technologies, such as nano structures and additive manufacturing (3D printing) will greatly reduce the cost and increase the performance of future missiles. That may end up being the case someday. But these technologies and techniques are still in the laboratory and so formulating assumptions about their prospective future benefits to weapon acquisition is speculative. Further, it is not logical to assert that such benefits, should they appear, can only benefit missile production but not aircraft production. For now it seems safe to surmise that these hypothetical benefits to weapon production are many years in the future and well beyond the planning horizon of today’s policymakers and planners who have urgent decisions to make regarding access-denial capabilities adversaries are fielding right now.
Finding bases for missiles
Finding bases for the new 4,000-kilometer missiles would not be simple. The new missiles would have to be larger than Tomahawk, meaning that they would not fit inside the Navy’s standard Mk 41 vertical launch system cells. The Navy would have to design a new launch system for the larger missiles and either retrofit this system onto some of existing cruisers and destroyers (removing those ships from their current missions) or acquire new ships designed to support the new missiles. The Navy is struggling to fund its current shipbuilding plan; a new class of “arsenal ships” would add to the existing budget trouble.
Analysts have long discussed the idea of using cargo aircraft as “missile trucks.” The Missile Defense Agency has used C-17 cargo aircraft to deploy medium range target missiles to test its interceptors. We don’t know the dimensions of hypothetical 4,000-kilometer ballistic or cruise missiles but let us assume that a C-17 could carry 16 such missiles in its cargo compartment. That is one-fifth the number of bombs the B-2 (and perhaps LRS-B) can carry. If the Air Force has no spare capacity in its C-17 fleet (a very reasonable assumption during a wartime emergency), the Air Force would have to restart the C-17 production line. In 2012 the Air Force purchased its final C-17 for $170 million. It would take 500 C-17s (costing $85 billion) to replicate the daily striking power of the LRS-B fleet. As calculated above, the missiles to arm the C-17s would be an extra expense (generously assumed at $2 million for a cruise missile and $20 million for a ballistic missile as compared to $25,000 for a JDAM kit). The “missile truck” option is far more expensive than the new bomber program.
The cheapest option would be to base the new missiles on land and on TELs. This of course would require the United States to abrogate the INF treaty. Assuming a future U.S. president did so, planners would then have to find bases and operating areas for the missiles and TELs. In the Pacific, Guam and several other small neighboring islands could be candidates. One risk is that Guam is already getting very crowded with other important military assets and is becoming increasingly vulnerable to Chinese missile suppression. Concentrating the missiles on Guam and neighboring islands would reinforce Guam’s status as a “single point of failure” for U.S. strategy in the region. Foreign basing would be highly controversial, with such deployments likely at risk at each general election in these countries, leaving sustainment of the concept in a constant state of uncertainty. It would be risky and expensive to solely rely on a missile-only strategy to substitute for the volume of sustained firepower and flexibility a new bomber fleet will deliver.
Suppressing bomber bases
In 2003, hobbyist Maynard Hill assembled an 11-pound balsa airplane that flew from Newfoundland to Ireland (1,882 miles) on less than one gallon of gasoline. This demonstration could inspire an adversary to fashion swarms of cheap drones to target U.S. Air Force bomber bases from very long range. An impact from such a drone armed with even a tiny warhead could result in a scrubbed mission for a stealth bomber that relies on an unblemished skin for its performance.
This could be a reasonable concern but an adversary like China would have to overcome some significant hurdles to turn it into a plausible military threat. The distance from China’s coast to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri (currently the home of the Air Force’s B-2 fleet) is over 7,000 miles, almost four times the distance of Hill’s flight. Such a drone would require alternate navigation systems (such as inertial or terrain-matching systems plus a radar altimeter) in addition to satellite navigation, which the Air Force could locally jam when bombers emerge from their shelters for takeoff. The drone swarm would have no idea in advance when U.S. bombers would emerge from their shelters to taxi to the runway. Thus, they would need targeting sensors (such as millimeter wave radar, an imaging infrared sensor, and laser-radar) and the ability to loiter for long periods above the many air bases the U.S. bomber force would use in wartime.
Avionics, sensors, and navigation systems add weight and require electrical power, resulting in the need for a substantial engine. This in turn will add to the fuel requirement to traverse over 7,000 miles and then loiter for perhaps many hours. The result will be a substantial (and not inexpensive) aircraft or cruise missile and thus a conventional target for existing U.S. air defense systems.
Potential adversaries are exploiting their positions on the Eurasian continent and the rapidly improving performance of missiles and sensors to build strike capabilities that will increasingly threaten the handful of bases and surface forces the United States employs to maintain forward presence. As these capabilities grow, adversary leaders may come to believe they will have military options during a future crisis. To prevent a breakdown in deterrence, the United States needs to bolster its deep strike capacity in order to remove any doubt about its ability to strike any target and at any point along the spectrum of escalation. After examining the alternatives, the Long-Range Strike-Bomber program offers the greatest sustained deep strike capacity at the lowest cost and with the lowest program risk.
Robert Haddick is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. His book “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific,” is now out from Naval Institute Press. He receives no compensation from any defense contractor or associated organization.