The arrival of the next-generation B-21 Raider will see the first major recapitalisation of the US Air Force strategic bomber fleet in close to three decades, but its arrival will breathe new life into the venerable B-52 as the service develops what amounts to a ‘high-low’ bomber mix.
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
While 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.
Long-range strike is typically conducted by a range of platforms, ranging from strategic and tactical strike bombers or smaller fighters supported by air-to-air refuelling and airborne early warning and command aircraft.
The US Air Force has long held the position of the world's premier air dominance and long-range strategic strike force enjoying both a qualitative and quantitative edge of peer and near-peer competitors as a result of decades of investment and doctrine perfecting during the Cold War.
However, the combination of extensive budget cuts and the ageing nature of many Cold War-era platforms is placing increased pressure on the US Air Force to meet both the tactical and strategic responsibilities required to support the national security objectives of the US.
This is perfectly encapsulated by the 2020 National Defense Autorization Act will see a number of major acquisitions, organisational restructures and modernisation programs to support America's shift away from decades of conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East towards the great power competition focus of the Indo-Pacific.
A core focus of the US pivot towards the Indo-Pacific and countering the economic, political and strategic assertiveness of China is modernising and expanding the capability of the US Air Force and it's Indo-Pacific-based Air Force assets.
Supporting this is a US$15 billion ($22.3 billion) increase to the US acquisition budget, bringing the Pentagon's total acquisition budget to US$146 billion ($217.3 billion) – despite this, it isn't all good news for the US Air Force.
Major acquisitions and reorientating the force for 'great power competition'
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Much like the Army and Navy, the US Air Force's budget is dominated by large, big ticket, expensive research and development and acquisition programs, like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider long-range strategic bomber and Ground Based Strategic Deterrence Minuteman recapitalisation programs.
This focus on large-scale programs has long hampered the USAF's ability to meet its global commitments as increasingly expensive, complex weapons systems hinder the ability to deploy based on available numbers and manpower resourcing further complicating tactical and strategic capability.
In response, the US Air Force's ageing platforms, namely Cold War-era strategic enablers such as the aerial refuelling platforms including the KC-135 and KC-10 platforms, alongside the long-range strike B-1 Lancer fleet and the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft, will account for modernisation and expansion programs.
As part of this, the Pentagon has asked for US$56.9 billion ($84.7 billion) for a number of major capability investments, including: US$11.4 billion ($16.9 billion) for 79 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, US$1.6 billion ($2.3 billion) for new-build Boeing F-15EX Advanced Eagle fighter aircraft and US$3 billion ($4.46 billion) for the troubled, but next-generation KC-46 aerial refuelling tankers.
US Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said in January, "We didn’t get everything we put on the table. Some was walked back. But we got a lot of what we put on the table."
A key focus of this is the planned retirement of the Cold War-era B-1 Lancer aircraft and the planned retirement of the B-2 Spirit stealth bombers following the planned introduction and nuclear certification of its successor, the B-21 Raider, planned at the earliest for later this decade, but more realistically in the 2030s.
Explaining this to US law makers of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, Lieutenant General David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, stressed the importance of preparing the US Air Force for a period of 'great power competition' and preparing for a conflict with a peer or near-peer nation such as China or Russia.
Lt Gen Nahom expanded the importance of the US Air Force's strategic bomber force, stating, "On the bomber fleet, there’s nothing more important to the Air Force. If you look at what the bombers bring, no one else brings it. Our joint partners don’t bring it, our coalition partners don’t bring it."
A 'high-low' strategic bomber force?
The recent high-tempo of operations conducted by the B-1 Lancers has placed increasing pressure on the capacity of the US Air Force to reliably and consistently keep the platforms in operation – citing major concerns about air frame fatigue and rising maintenance costs as a result of increased operational pressures.
Lt Gen Nahom stated, "We’ve used that airplane [B-1 Lancer], and overused it over many years. It’s broken, in many ways."
Retiring some of the older, more fatigued airframes, Lt Gen Nahom believes that the US Air Force will be able to extend the life of the aircraft until the delivery of the B-21 alongside the B-2 Spirit, ensuring that the US is capable of having both high capacity and stealthy penetrating strategic strike aircraft.
Additionally, the US Air Force and law makers are committed to keeping the venerable B-52 Stratofortress in the air, bringing some of the airframes to a century of service – with some US lawmakers stating that while the B-52H airframes are old in terms of years, they are comparatively not as old based on the flight hours.
Lt Gen Nahom added, regarding the importance of keeping the B-52s to operate alongside the B-21 Raiders, "we’re going to be able to do things with that airplane that we would not be able to do with a B-1 or a B-2".
Currently, the B-25H are undergoing a modernisation process, including a re-engining, radar replacement and additional new technologies designed to expand the capability profile of the aircraft, future-proofing the aircraft for well into the 2050s.
Building on the legacy of the world’s first stealth bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, the next-generation B-21 Raider will serve as the backbone of America’s strategic bomber fleet for decades to come.
Acting Secretary of the US Air Force Matthew Donovan said during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference, “The first flight of the Raider will take it from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base, where the legacy of excellence will continue with the reactivation of the 420th Flight Test Squadron.”
According to the US Air Force, the B-21 is a “new, high-tech long-range bomber that will eventually replace the Air Force’s ageing bomber fleet” and “must be able to penetrate highly contested environments, have top-end low observability characteristics and loiter capability”.
The Air Force’s original plan for the B-21 contract called for “80 to 100” aircraft, but USAF leaders over the past two years have been touting “at least 100” airplanes. However, this could grow to 150-200 airframes in light of growing great power competition.
The first aircraft is currently under construction at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale facility and is expected to be rolled out to the public in the next 20 months, making its first flight a few months later.
The B-21 is believed to be somewhat smaller than the B-2, with a payload of approximately 30,000 pounds (13,607 kilograms) and estimated unrefuelled range similar to that of its predecessor at 19,000 kilometres, and is just large enough to carry one GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator precision-guided conventional bomb, the largest in the Air Force inventory.
Australia’s air force modernisation, exemplified by the multibillion-dollar acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is not being done in isolation, with lessons to learn by both the RAAF and USAF.
Many throughout Indo-Pacific Asia are embarking on their own air power modernisation and recapitalisation efforts, incorporating advanced fighter aircraft, long-range strike aircraft and advanced command and control and aerial refuelling capabilities.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce issued a relevant challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying: "If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.