Tuesday, January 29, 2008

USAF's Bomber Conundrum

The Fighter Mafia, which since the end of the Vietnam War has dominated US Air Force strategic thought and procurement, is struggling over the increased need for a new long range bomber. It is ironic that the fighter pilots supplanted the bomber generals within the high command just as modern weapons were giving the large planes the capabilities which airpower prophets has so long promised.

We were told since the dawn of military aviation in the last century that "the bomber will always get through". After each major conflict the heavy planes were seen as the ultimate deterrence, the acquisition of which would prevent any aggressor form attacking the homeland if the enemy was in turn threatened with massive retaliation upon its civilian population.

The reality was that even when married to the frightening new and powerful A-bombs, the strategic bomber wasn't very effective in preventing new wars. Man has always found a way to kill one another. The end of Great Power war after World War 2 only saw the rise of guerrilla conflict, most notably in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and today in Iraq. For deterring war, today's bomber fleets are equally impotent. However, For quick and decisive tactical strikes and even close air support, such planes are now the weapons of choice. The huge ordinance load which include new precision guided weapons, each of which can be programmed to attack individual targets, make them a far more economical choice than short range fighters. America's premier force of B-1s, B-2s, and ancient but well-preserved B-52s have performed stellar service in all America's recent military actions; especially in regions where nearby landing fields are sparse or unavailable due to reluctant allies.

Rather than speeding development full force on the new planes, the Air Force is instead enamored with its new superfighter, the F-22 Raptor, some 25 years in the making. Strapped for cash in the War on Terror, the pilots have been forced to make due with only 180 of these $200 million hi-tech wonders, far fewer than they desire. Distracted and disappointed, the USAF seems stymied for a solution to their future needs.

Some see unmanned technology, such as the Boeing X-45 UCAV as a solution. Other call for a "stretched" version of the Raptor for our long-range perpetrator needs. A radical and more affordable solution might be a converted airliner, which could load cruise missiles or precision bombs as well as a B-52.

Whatever the new bomber ultimately reveals itself as, it can come none too soon for the USAF, with only a handful of fairly new B-2s in service, and the older workhorses already several decades old.