Thomas Mahnken, CEO of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) think tank has called for renewed US support to accommodate a potential Australian request to participate in and acquire a fleet of the next-generation B-21 Raider bombers to support maximise the strategic impacts of America’s defence expenditure and investment.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
Despite these reassurances, the US strategic bomber fleet is without doubt starting to feel the pressure of age and overuse as a result of continuous combat operations in the Middle East, at a time when the US Air Force will be required to play an increasingly important role in countering great power rivals.
Enter Thomas Mahnken, president and CEO of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), who has penned a piece for DefenseNews, titled 'Six ways the US can maximise its strategic benefit from defense spending' , in which he sets out a number of powerful points for consideration within the US defence establishment, but one with a uniquely, Australian flavour.
If the Aussies ask, let's show them some love
Mahnken cites the wildly growing research and development costs associated with a number of next-generation platforms fielded by the US, which has resulted in a smaller acquisition and increased unit costs, namely, Mahnken notes the F-22 Raptor development and acquisition program, with similar examples able to made, including the B-2 Spirit and Seawolf Class attack submarines.
In order to resolve these challenges, Mahnken believes that spreading research and development costs, combined with including export options from the beginning of the development phase would enable greater cost savings and flow on economic benefits for the US defence industrial base as a result of increased acquisition and sustainment numbers.
"Finally, the United States should take every opportunity to promote arms exports, which both create jobs and increase the security of our allies. Much more should be done to increase the speed and predictability of the arms export process," Mahnken states.
"In addition, with few exceptions, US weapons should be developed with export in mind. We should avoid a repetition of the case of the F-22 aircraft, which was designed from birth never to be exported."
Turning his attentions to Australia, Mahnken see's growing support from within Australia's strategic policy community for the acquisition or lease of the B-21 Raider as a perfect opportunity for both nations to collaborate and support mutual tactical and strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific.
Mahnken articulates, "We need to learn from the past in developing the next generation of weapons. For example, in recent months, Australian defence analysts have discussed the attractiveness of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber for Australia’s defence needs.
"Export of the B-21 to a close ally such as Australia, should Canberra so desire, should be given serious consideration."
Such an acquisition would not only serve to fill the long-range strike capability gap Australia has experienced since the retirement of the F-111, but equally support the US recapitalise its own fleet of ageing strategic bomber platforms at reduced unit costs, while promoting greater interoperability with a key regional and global ally.
"The current situation is challenging, with even more difficult times to come. If we are smart, however, we can both keep Americans at work and get what we need for national defence," Mahnken adds.
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 13,600 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.
In the years following the end of the Second World War, long-range air power in the form of the Canberra and later the F-111 bombers served as critical components in the nation's air power arsenal.
Australia's fleet of Oberon, followed by Collins Class submarines have also served as a powerful strategic deterrence capability while Australia has been able to ensure qualitative edges over potential adversaries, however, the economic growth and commitment by Australia's neighbours mean that the nation's qualitative edge is deminishing.
Additionally, the increasing power of cyber warfare and asymmetric capabilities will play an important role in evaluating, defining and developing a robust, multi-domain strategic deterrence capability for Australia.
Meanwhile, 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.
The long-range tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities of such platforms, combined with the qualitative edge of Australian personnel and technological advantages of these platforms, ensured Australia unrestricted regional dominance against all but the largest peer competitors.
The rapidly evolving regional environment requires a renewed focus on developing a credible, future-proofed long-range strike capability for the RAAF and RAN to serve as critical components in the development of a truly 'joint force' Australian Defence Force capable of supporting and enhancing the nation's strategic engagement and relationships in the region.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
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 also issued a 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.