Long-range strike aircraft, ranging from tactical to strategic bombers, provide nations with potent power projection and deterrence capabilities. The US maintains a broad fleet of strategic strike aircraft, supported by allies like Australia to counter the rising threat of increasingly capable tactical and strategic bomber aircraft operated by peer and near-peer competitors like China, Russia and India.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations. Air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
Long-range strike, typically conducted by strategic bombers and tactical strike fighters supported by air-to-air refuelling and airborne early warning and command aircraft, serves as a complementary doctrine to air dominance, with each serving a unique yet symbiotic role in the survivability and effectiveness of tactical units and the broader strategic deterrence.
Strategic bombers like the US Cold War-era B-52H Stratofortress, supersonic B-1B Lancer and stealth Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit serve as the basis of the regional long-range strike package. The US next-generation B-21 Raider, which incorporates a range of advanced, fifth-generation technologies including advanced sensor suites, low observable, high-performance airframes and coatings to successfully conduct operations with impunity, even in heavily defended, integrated air defence and anti-access/area denial (A2AD) networks, like those developed by China in the South China Sea.
China's rise as an emerging superpower has seen the nation begin a period of modernisation and expansion of its own tactical and strategic bombers, including the introduction of the upgraded H-6K forces and the planned introduction of its own H-20 long-range, stealth bomber to supplement the growing heavily defended, integrated air defence and A2AD networks in the South China Sea, while also expanding the broader multi-domain power projection forces of the People's Liberation Army.
Further complicating the strategic calculus is the growing modernisation of Russia's Cold War-era fleet of tactical and strategic bombers, which will see the overhaul of the Tu-160M2 fleet and the introduction of the PAK DA strategic stealth bomber to counter the continued modernisation and expansion of America's next-generation long-range strike and deterrence bomber fleet.
The Eagle’s claws
The US maintains a range of Cold War-era strategic and tactical bombers, ranging from the Second World War-era B-29 Superfortress and P-47 Thunderbolt to the Cold War-era F-117 Nighthawk and the next generation B-2 Spirit, soon to be supplemented and eventually replaced by the B-21 Raider currently in development by Northrop Grumman.
The current arsenal of the US Air Force, including those operated in the Indo-Pacific, includes:
- Boeing B-52H Stratofortress: The oldest bomber in the US arsenal, the B-52 was originally designed to perform nuclear deterrence missions during the Cold War and has received a range of upgrades and modernisations over the life of the aircraft design. The 'H' variant incorporates a range of upgrades enabling the airframe to deploy a range of precision guided and unguided munitions totalling up to approximately 31,500 kliograms of mixed ordnance including bombs, mines and missiles. The B-52H has a combat radius of 7,210 kilometres and incorporates a range of modern avionics and targeting systems including both the LITENING Advanced Targeting System and the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod to support strategic and tactical bombing operations for close air support missions.
- Rockwell/Boeing B-1B Lancer: A supersonic, variable-sweep wing, heavy bomber designed to penetrate the increasingly heavy and advanced Soviet air defence systems through the use of high-speed, low altitude manoeuvres in a similar manner to that of the F-111. With a top speed of Mach 1.25 (at 40,000 feet) and Mach 0.92 (at 60-150 metres), the B-1B has a combat radius of 5,543 kilometres and payload of 56,700 kliograms for both precision guided and unguided weapons systems, making it the heaviest and most adaptable bomber in the US arsenal. Additionally, the B-1B incorporates a suite of advanced avionics, countermeasures and targeting systems.
- Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit: The first true strategic stealth bomber, the B-2 was designed to complement the B-1B by providing an all-altitude attack capability with an unrefuelled range of approximately 11,100 kilometres, which is extended to over 19,000 kilometres when refuelled. The high cost of the aircraft, which grew rapidly to about US$2.1 billion per aircraft, ledto Congress reducing the plans to acquire 132 to 21 airframes in the mid-1990s. The B-2, like its smaller stealth cousins the F-22 and F-35, carries all its ordnance internally in two bays with an official payload of about 18,000 kilograms with a maximum estimated limit of about 23,000 kilograms of both conventional and nuclear precision guided and unguided munitions, including a range of bombs, and stand-off munitions, including the AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) and AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM).
While these three bombers form the core of the US strategic bomber and long-range strike arsenal, the US is currently developing the B-21 Raider, named in honour of the Second World War Doolittle Raiders that successfully bombed Tokyo as part of an early retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The B-21 is being developed in response to the increasing air defence capabilities of both Russia and China, particularly the widespread introduction of the S-300 and S-400 integrated air and missile defence systems.
A flying wing design, similar to the B-2, the Raider is expected to incorporate a range of advancements over the original Spirit, with a focus on leveraging the lessons learned during the development and acquisition of the F-22 and F-35 while also supporting the intelligence, data collection, analytics and sensor fusion capabilities, which serve as the core of fifth-generation air combat platforms.
The first flight for the B-21 is expected to take place in 2021 with the growing deterrence and long-range strike capabilities of Russia and China's own developing bomber forces presenting significant tactical and strategic challenges to traditional strengths like US air dominance and long-range strike capabilities.
The Dragon’s fire
While China starts from a relatively limited base in terms of a strategic bomber force, the rising superpower's commitment to developing a credible air-based long-range strike and deterrence focused bomber force has gone from strength to strength with the addition of the upgraded Xian H-6K serving as the core of the nation's strategic bomber force.
The H-6K has received a range of modernisation and capability improvements, focused on enhancing the lethality of China's A2AD network in the South China Sea. This has seen the platform modified to accept a range of air-launched anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles including the YJ-10 and YJ-12 series, which are designed to saturate and overwhelm an enemy's air defence radar systems.
The upgraded H-6K is estimated to have a range of about 6,000 kilometres with a combat radius of about 1,800 kilometres, providing a long-range strike and deterrence capability protruding beyond the first-island chain in the South China Sea.
However, much like the US, China has sought to modernise its strategic bombing force, to improve the survivability and tactical and strategic force multiplying capabilities with the alleged development of the H-20, a long-range stealth bomber.
While details regarding the capabilities of the H-20 are still limited, the US intelligence agencies and defence analysts, combined with the congressional committee responsible for the review of China's military modernisation and expansion programs, have suspected it to have a payload of 20,000 kilograms and a range of at least 12,000 kilometres, providing China with a credible strategic bomber capability.
Putin’s Bear returns
Russia emerged from the Cold War with an arsenal focused on deterring the US and its own strategic long-range strike forces, which throughout the 1990s would be plagued by reliability, maintenance and operational issues. However, the rise of Vladimir Putin has seen the nation embark on the largest period of modernisation and expansion since the Cold War.
This has seen Russia overhaul and upgrade its strategic, long-range bomber fleet to counter the continued strategic dominance of the US through the introduction of platforms including:
- Tupolev Tu-95: The Soviet Union's earliest post-Second World War strategic bomber, based on the US B-29 Superfortress, has provided Russia with a credible, long-range, tactical and strategic strike platform used to constantly test the air defences of NATO and the US. The modernised Tu-95 has a range of 15,000 kilometres with a payload of up to 15,000 kilograms, including a range of both conventional and nuclear precision and unguided bombs, cruise missiles and mines designed to target US carrier strike groups in the Atlantic and western Pacific.
- Tupolev Tu-22M: Russia's answer to the B-1B, the Tu-22M is designed to provide the Russian Air Force with a strategic bomber and Russian Naval Aviation forces with a credible, long-range maritime strike and anti-shipping role designed to specifically target US carrier strike groups and troop convoys in the Atlantic. The Tu-22M is also designed to operate in conjunction with Russian submarine hunter killer groups, with a maximum speed of Mach 1.88, a range of about 6,800 kilometres and a payload capacity of roughly 24,000 kilograms of both conventional and nuclear precision and unguided bombs, cruise missiles and mines.
- Tupolev Tu-160: Russia's answer to the failed US XB-70 Mach 3 Valkyrie bomber, the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber designed and built by the Soviet Union and has been the focus of much of Putin's modernisation efforts. The Tu-160 has a maximum speed of Mach 2.05 with a combat radius of about 7,300 kilometres, sporting a range of internally mounted ordnance with a payload capacity of 45,000 kilograms of both conventional and nuclear precision and unguided bombs, cruise missiles and mines.
A role for Aussie innovation, manufacturing and industry development
Australia's retirement of the F-111 platform, combined with the the limited availability of the Navy's Collins Class submarines, left the nation at a strategic and tactical disadvantage, limiting the nation's ability to successfully intercept and prosecute major strategic strikes against air, land and sea targets that threatened the nation or its interests in the 'sea/air gap', as defined in the 1986 Dibb review.
While the acquisition of the Super Hornets in the mid-to-late 2000s served as a partial stop-gap for that lost capability, the nation has not successfully replaced the capability gap left by the F-111.
The advent of increasingly complex and capable unmanned strike platforms like the Reaper series of unmanned combat vehicles and the persistent long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of the MQ-4C Triton, RQ-4 Global Hawk and the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, all provide highly successful platforms and technology demonstrators.
Additionally, the recent announcement of the joint Defence Science and Technology and Boeing development of the 'loyal wingman' concept provides avenues for Australia to partner with defence industry primes and allies to develop a long-range, unmanned, low observable strike platform with a payload capacity similar to or indeed greater than the approximately 15-tonne payload of the retired F-111.
Such a capability would also enjoy extensive export opportunities with key allies like the US and UK, who could operate the platform as a cost-effective replacement for larger bombers like the ageing B-52H Stratofortress, B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit, and supplement for the in-development B-21 Raider long-range strategic bomber.