The age and capability of America’s Cold War-era strategic bomber force has raised concerns both in Washington and allied capitals, and while the B-21 is progressing well, concerns about a dwindling allied long-range strike force has given rise to arsenal planes – but they may not be the magic bullet.
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.
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.
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.
Heavily armed arsenal aircraft have long been touted as a supplement for ageing and dwindling numbers of traditional strategic bomber forces, often leveraging either modified commercial airliners or military airlifter platforms to fill a key capability gap.
Mark Gunzinger, a retired US Air Force colonel and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources, is the director for future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute and has outlined a detailed analysis of the arsenal plane concept.
A challenge not seen since the Cold War
The resurgence of Russia and its willingness to engage in both traditional brinkmanship and increasingly grey-zone tactics, culminating in the occupation of Crimea and ongoing Russian presence in Syria, combined with China's own growing adventurism in the Indo-Pacific means the USAF's limited numbers of strategic bombers are increasingly stretched.
Gunzinger articulates this perfectly, stating, "America’s security interests are being threatened like never before. China and Russia pose challenges of a nature the US has not confronted since the Cold War, and rogue states such as Iran and North Korea seek the means to launch devastating missile attacks.
"The Pentagon is modernising to meet these challenges, including buying next-generation capabilities to strike with precision over long ranges. Long-range strikes are one of the most effective tools available to America’s theatre commanders when paired with strategies that target vital resources on which an enemy’s offensive depends.
"As the Department of Defense modernises its long-range strike portfolio, it should focus on its most critical shortfall: the lack of stealth bombers capable of attacking thousands of targets anywhere in the battle space."
In light of this, while the US has kick started its bomber modernisation and recapitalisation culminating in the B-21 Raider program, many have floated the idea of reviving the arsenal plane concept to fill the gap, giving older, often costly platforms like the B-1B Lancer and B-52H Stratofortress reprieve from constant operations around the globe.
Gunzinger explains the current composition of the US strategic bomber force and the very limited capacity of the force to survive in a peer or near-peer threat environment, saying: "Today’s force does not have the right balance. The DoD’s long-range strike capabilities are all standoff systems except for the Air Force’s 20 stealth B-2s. This is a key reason the DoD is buying B-21s that have advanced stealth, sensors and data links, as well as the ability to fuse information similar to fifth-generation F-35s."
However, Gunzinger believes that pursuing an arsenal plane concept would prove more detrimental to the long-term, long-range strike ambitions of the US Air Force, with broader impacts on the US alliances that depend on the strategic umbrella.
To this end, Gunzinger has identified five key factors that he believes preclude an arsenal plane from plugging the gap, including:
"An arsenal plane would grow the DoD’s standoff strike capacity instead of rebalancing its force mix. Doing so at the expense of procuring more B-21s would reduce options to strike anywhere in the battle space and risk over-investing in standoff strike capacity, since other services are also buying new standoff weapons.
An airlift aircraft strike concept doesn’t make sense from an operational perspective. The DoD may require more airlift to support distributed operations during a conflict with China or Russia. Allocating some C-17 or C-130 aircraft to conduct strikes would reduce the airlift capability available to deploy and sustain US forces. General Timothy Ray, Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has voiced this concern.
Arsenal planes have targeting limitations. The farther the standoff range of an arsenal plane, the larger the munition it must use to reach distant targets. Larger munitions translate to fewer weapons delivered per aircraft sortie, which can increase time needed to strike all targets required by theatre commanders — time an enemy could use to its advantage. Long-range weapons are also less effective against targets that are hardened, deeply buried or can quickly relocate — countermeasures used by China, Russia and others to defeat US precision strikes.
Greater reliance on standoff strikes doesn’t make sense from a cost-per-target perspective. Weapon costs increase in proportion to the weapon’s range and sophistication. The design features of long-range weapons can drive their cost to $1 million or more, and the cheapest hypersonic (Mach 5-plus) missiles could cost $2-3 million. Short-range weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition can cost less than $50,000. While next-generation standoff weapons are needed, launching these one-time-use assets against tens of thousands of targets would cost far more than reusable penetrating bombers that deliver less expensive munitions.
An arsenal plane would not be cheaper or quicker. Restarting C-17 production alone would require billions of dollars, and a clean-sheet design could be even more expensive. Plus, since 1980, the time between major new Air Force aircraft program starts and first flights averaged six years, and another three to four years are needed before they are operational. If this track record holds true, B-21s would be joining the force in significant numbers before an arsenal plane is operational."
In light of these challenges, is it time for pivotal US allies, like the UK and Australia to support the modernisation and recapitalisation of the US strategic bomber force by pursuing a limited number of B-21 Raiders? Thomas Mahnken, president and CEO of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) certainly believes so.
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, 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 sees 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.
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.