war on the rocks

Getting Airpower Right: In Defense of the Long Range Strike Bomber

June 16, 2015

Is independent long-range strike a failure? That’s what T.X. Hammes would have us think. He uses time-worn arguments to claim that the U.S. Air Force’s plan to build the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) is a bad idea and that the money would be better spent elsewhere. Hammes’ argument suffers from many of the same flaws of others who offer impassioned critiques of airpower: namely, poor understanding of airpower theory and practice, a reliance on straw men, and selection bias. In short, we suggest that the LRS-B and the long-range strike mission remain critical to the nation’s national security.

Airpower Theory

The argument that long-range strike (also called strategic bombing) is little more than a disproven theory stems from a fixation by critics on the early work of Giulio Douhet, an airpower theorist who was writing during the early days of manned flight (1921) about the possibility of airpower playing a pivotal role in warfare. While it is true that some of Douhet’s contemporaries, including American Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, believed in the ability of airpower to end wars, airpower has since evolved in both theory and practice. Modern airmen have continued to incorporate experience into their thinking on the role of airpower in war. Using the writings of Douhet and Mitchell to criticize the role of modern airpower is akin to an airman using the writings of Maurice de Saxe (1757) to criticize modern land warfare.

While Hammes correctly mentions some of airpower’s successes, he sets up a straw man to then dismiss the impact of airpower when he suggests that airpower fails if it does not win wars independent of land and sea capabilities. In offering his own cases of airpower’s failure to be decisive (Lebanon-1982, Syria-1986, Sudan-1998, etc.), Hammes falls into the selection bias trap by selecting cases based on the dependent variable: conflicts in which airpower played a visible role. Not only does he dismiss all cases where airpower may have deterred a conflict, but he also dismisses cases that disprove his assertions.

These include World War II (particularly how it ended in the Pacific), Operation Opera (Israeli), and Operation Odyssey Dawn (NATO). He also describes Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) as an airpower failure, yet the most successful period of the operation was during its early days when a small ground contingent relied on airpower to destroy large parts of opposition forces. His most grievous mistake involves his misuse of terms. Long-range strike is a mission, not a theory. In other words, the U.S. Air Force conducts long-range strike missions against targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere regularly. To suggest it is a theory, rather than something we do with great frequency, is incorrect. It is a mission the United States must continue to be prepared to carry out for the foreseeable future. It is also one that is uniquely suited to the bomber the Air Force will build.

Bombers have some unique characteristics that aren’t usually talked about. While they do have long range and flexibility, there are some not so traditional elements that make bombers uniquely well suited for the long-range strike mission.

Point of Origin

The point of origin for a strike mission matters. American bombers launching from American soil are not bound by the restrictions placed on aircraft launching from foreign airfields. If the United States wants to strike a target in country X when launching from country Y, it is necessary to get country Y’s approval of the mission. This is a constraint frequently placed on American aircraft, but seldom relayed to the American public. Bombers launched from the United States are not subject to this constraint, and thus remain one of the most flexible capabilities in America’s arsenal.

Magazine Depth

The Navy provides another sovereign launch point — from international waters — for an American strike. Unfortunately, carrier based aircraft are short-legged (less than 1,000 nautical mile range) and cruise missiles are expensive and rapidly depleted. Contrary to Hammes’ argument that the United States will have plenty of cruise missiles if we just avoid buying a new bomber, the simple fact is, cruise missiles must be launched from expensive platforms too. Whether it be ships, submarines, or bombers, the cost of a cruise missile is not the only expense involved. As Air Force and Navy planners have discovered, one-way cruise missiles are an expensive way to strike a target. Cruise missiles also have limited capacity to strike hardened or mobile targets. Bombers provide effective deep strike capability, day after day. Operation Odyssey Dawn is a good example of the magazine-depth challenge: Given its persistent presence, naval vessels launched TLAMs to begin the campaign but were essentially out of Schlitz after the first night. Bombers flying from the United States or European bases were able to fly strike missions continuously, delivering weapons that are about one-tenth the cost of a cruise missile.

Manned vs. Unmanned

The Air Force is regularly castigated for not being forward thinking in its adoption of the ever-increasing capabilities of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The idea is that the Air Force, which is led by pilots, is loath to make the move to drones due to machismo and perceived loss of prestige. Nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the large number of RPAs being acquired (more RPAs than manned aircraft) and RPA pilots being trained today. The Air Force has made the switch to RPAs where appropriate, but it does not always make sense, especially when America’s adversaries are intent on taking away the ability to control them from a distance through a range of cyber-attacks and jamming capabilities. Each mission has to be looked at closely to ensure the risks to mission success are acceptable — for the foreseeable future, a mix of manned and remotely-piloted systems provides flexibility, resilience, and effectiveness.


Another important component of American airpower is stealth, which is frequently misunderstood. Tactical stealth is the combination of technology and tactics that allow the striker to survive in a contested environment and successfully conduct a strike. This means aircraft like the F-22, which is stealthy and fast, have the “first look, first shot, first kill.” This provides the attacker a distinct advantage over an adversary unaware of the striker’s presence.

Strategic stealth is also a combination of stealth technology and tactics, but it doesn’t stop there. Strategic stealth uses the technology to develop a stealth methodology for achieving a strategic effect. The stealth methodology seeks to take away the enemy’s ability to detect offensive actions. Domestic basing, which makes it harder for an adversary to predict a strike, is one important feature of this methodology. Attack from a stealth aircraft can also defeat an adversary’s air defenses, enabling non-stealthy aircraft to penetrate an adversary’s airspace. Aircraft design and operational art are important components of the methodology. The bottom line is that the United States has developed a methodology of aerial warfare that provides a unique capability — one that our adversaries fear, and is proven to shape their behavior.


Together these characteristics combine to make airpower and the long-range strike mission (performed by bombers) a uniquely significant capability in the American arsenal. The all-too-often neglected role of airpower in shaping adversary behavior is probably its most significant capability –– deterrence. The ability to create fear in the minds of America’s adversaries is the key aspect of deterrence. While this was evident during the Cold War, recognition of airpower’s role has been lost in recent years. Nevertheless, this concept was on full display March 28, 2013 when the Air Force sent two B-2 bombers in a show of force over South Korea to remind North Korea of U.S. long-range strike capability.

While the term “deterrence” is frequently used in conjunction with nuclear weapons, conventional capability — employed from a stealth bomber — is also an important weapon in America’s deterrence arsenal.


What is evident in the airpower critiques of land or sea power zealots is that their own preferred form of warfare (land or sea) could not pass the same test that airpower is expected to pass with a perfect score. Airmen can easily call into question the need for an Army given the long and arguably less-than-successful conduct of ground-centric campaigns in Asia (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq). They might also call into question the need for the Navy to have an army (Marines), which has its own air force. Given the limited global threat to shipping, it would be easy to question the need to spend $140-150 billion each year on naval assets whose primary mission is patrolling the sea lines of commerce and communication.

In truth, however, this sort of non-productive inter-service bickering substitutes mediocre fiscal arguments for more strategic questions that deserve the attention of our best and brightest thinkers. How do we most effectively provide joint capabilities to the nation? How do we most effectively deter adversaries? Where is military power most and least appropriate for achieving national security objectives? If we can address these questions, we will better understand which specific capabilities and platforms are most needed in an uncertain and dangerous future.


Colonel Robert Spalding, PhD (USAF) was an Air Force Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and flew the B-2 bomber. Dr. Adam Lowther was a petty officer in the U.S. Navy and serves as a research professor at the Air Force Research Institute.