Former US Air Force vice chief of staff, General (Ret’d) John Loh, has expressed growing concerns about the diminishing size of the US strategic bomber force at a time when global pressures will place increased pressure on the ageing force.
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.
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 control 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 over 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 Authorization Act, which 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 and Europe.
Recognising this, former US Air Force vice chief of staff, General (Ret’d) John Loh has identified the key challenges facing America's declining bomber force as a result of ageing airframes, shrinking budgets and the narrowing qualitative and quantitative gaps between American and peer/near-peer competitor platforms.
"America’s bomber force is now in crisis. In the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 budget request, one-third of the B-1 fleet is set for retirement, B-2 survivability, modernisation is cancelled and the new B-21 is at least a decade away from contributing significantly to the bomber force. The venerable B-52 requires new engines and other upgrades to be effective," Loh explains, setting the scene.
"The number of bombers are at their lowest ever, but demand for bombers increases every year, particularly in the vast and most-stressed region of the Indo-Pacific. Bombers are the preferred weapon system there because of their long range and huge payload capacity."
Steady decline since the end of the Cold War
Loh expands on the scene-setting statements, highlighting the steady decline of the US Air Force bomber force since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the US emerged as the sole global superpower.
"At the end of the Cold War in 1989 and just prior to the Gulf War in 1990, America had over 400 bombers. After these proposed cuts, there will be only 140," Loh explained.
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 and complex weapons systems hinder the ability to deploy based on available numbers. and manpower resourcing further complicating tactical and strategic capability.
US Air Force Chief of Staff General 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."
Loh highlights the disconnect between budget statements, the expectations of the US bomber force and the future force structure of the US strategic bomber force.
"This decline is curious in light of recent Air Force declarations and testimony before Congress. In the document, The Air Force We Need, Air Force leaders insisted last fall they need five more bomber squadrons — about 65 more bombers," he explains.
"Just last month, the Air Force chief of staff testified that the need is for '200 bombers, of which 145 would be B-21s'. These numbers have been validated by think tanks such as MITRE Corp, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Rand, and the Mitchell Institute."
Bombers will see increased importance in the Indo-Pacific
The intrinsic capabilities presented by bomber platforms have seen the US bomber inventory, the B-1 Lancer, the B-52H Stratofortress and the stealth, B-2 Spirit play critical roles in supporting US and allied operations in the Middle East, with the platforms emerging as a key favourite for combatant commanders.
Loh explains, "In our wars in the Middle East, the B-1s, B-2s and B-52s have all played central roles attacking fixed targets and in close-air support of ground troops.
"Their long range and on-station times, combined with huge weapons loads, make them the weapon of choice for combatant commanders in both the Middle East and Pacific regions."
The growing diversity of responsibilities the US bomber force will be required to undertake, namely the increasing unpredictability of North Korea and Iran, through to continued operations against ISIS, and finally, the role the US will be required to play directly deterring China and Russia, is placing increased pressure on the limited number of bombers available to meet tactical and strategic operations.
"The need for more bombers is increasing. Whether facing non-state actors like ISIS, mid-tier threats like North Korea and Iran, or peer threats such as China and Russia, the ability to strike targets quickly and in large numbers is crucial," Loh explained.
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.