Resetting America’s Power Projection Edge: The B-21

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On January 17, 1991, America launched the most successful air campaign in history against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. At the tip of the spear in those opening attacks were several B-52s, which launched from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana and flew non-stop over 7000 miles to hit their targets in Iraq. Since then, bombers have played a key role in nearly every subsequent conflict—Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The reason for this is simple: these aircraft possessed the range, payload, persistence, flexibility, and lethality commanders require to net key objectives when war erupts and results count. However, despite the unrivaled value bombers afford, America has run its investment in these aircraft too thin for too long. The B-21, which will be unveiled this Friday (December 2, 2022), presents a crucial opportunity to reset America’s bomber deficit.

The U.S. bomber force totaled 411 aircraft at the end of the Cold War. Today’s inventory of 141 bombers, consisting of 20 B-2s, 45 B-1Bs, and 76 B-52Hs, is down by two thirds, with only 113 assigned to operational combat units. The rest are in test, training, and depot overhaul. After applying mission capable rates, the Air Force can call on, day-to-day, about 60 bombers to conduct long-range strikes—a shadow of the force that deterred the Soviet Union and defended America’s allies and friends over 30 years ago. Operationally, this means only about 15 bombers could be engaging in one theater at any one time with 15 recovering, 15 enroute, and 15 regenerating. That is simply inadequate to meet the world-wide demands of the nation’s defense strategy.

Since the end of the Cold War, Presidents, Congress, and Department of Defense (DOD) leaders have consistently underfunded the Air Force and cut its bomber force structure without buying enough replacements. Consider that the original B-2 acquisition plan was to buy over 130 B-2s, but we only purchased 21. When one of those crashed due to a technical malfunction, that single loss represented 5 percent of our stealth bomber inventory.

For the past 30 years, the nation has invested less in its Air Force than in its Army or Navy. As a consequence, the Air Force is now the oldest, smallest, and least ready in its 75-year history. Yet, the Army and Navy cannot project viable combat power without Air Force airpower. Missions like air superiority, long range strike, aerial refueling, air mobility, along with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are integral to joint force operations. A 2018 study—The Air Force We Need—revealed a 24 percent deficit in Air Force capacity to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy. Those conclusions remain valid, except demand is even higher today given world events, and the Air Force is now smaller than it was in 2018. Bombers were the mission area highlighted as requiring the most growth.

The B-21 roll-out comes at a time the nation desperately needs long-range strike capability and capacity to execute its defense strategy. Of all the weapon systems in the U.S. defense inventory, the B-21 is the most relevant to deterring and if necessary, defeating what the DOD has identified as America’s pacing threat, China. Specifically, the B-21 is custom made for dealing with the challenges posed by the China threat—the ability to rapidly conquer the tyranny of distance inherent in the vastness of the Indo-Pacific region of the globe—and survive.

The new B-21 is essential to the successful implementation of strategies and operational concepts being developed to enable the U.S. military to project power in the face of China’s anti-access, area denial challenges. The B-21 constitutes the foundation of a credible and effective capability to hold any target on the planet at risk and, if necessary, destroy them promptly. This global strike capability is indispensable for deterrence and crisis management and is a fundamental pillar of U.S. military power.

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Beyond its lethality the B-21 will be a highly flexible weapon system whose long range, large payload, sensor potential, and high survivability render it indispensable in a variety of roles across the conflict spectrum. A product of the information age, the B-21 will be able to harness its sensors and processing power to understand the battlespace in a real time way simply not possible with current bombers. It will also be able to partner with external sources, both providing and pulling data. As recently announced by its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman
NOC
Corporation, the B-21, “has … been designed as the lead component of a larger family of systems that will deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack and multi-domain networking capabilities.”

Designed to exploit information age developments and concepts of operation, the B-21 may be better thought of as a long-range sensor-shooter. This especially applies when the B-21 is integrated with other “nodes” of the future combat cloud permeating every domain: air, space, land, sea, and cyberspace. This is the promise of the vision of joint all domain warfare, and the B-21 will be a linchpin of that operating concept.

Today, the stated Air Force overall bomber objective is 225 aircraft. This includes a mix of B-21s and B-52s—the youngest of which is over 60 years old. While larger than the existing bomber inventory, this plan takes far too long to reach the 225-bomber goal, not getting there until the 2040s. This leaves the nation with a scarcity of long-range strike capacity for two decades or more. Production capacity and resources necessary to maximize this potential needs to increase. These aircraft cannot be produced in the quantity combatant commanders require with the flip of a switch. We need to rapidly rebuild our bomber arsenal, otherwise, it will be too late when the next crisis emerges. Consider the challenges the defense industrial base is facing supplying Ukraine with various armaments. Building a sufficient bomber force is a far more difficult challenge.

Preparing for the future is the rationale for the B-21. Today’s small inventory of old bombers portends too much risk. Not only is today’s bomber force undersized relative to the power projection forces required for our security strategy, but the numbers are too anemic to backfill realistic combat losses. Adversaries understand our vulnerabilities. It is one reason why Putin was incentivized to invade Ukraine and why China has been so aggressive in the Pacific—they know the U.S. is currently playing a fragile hand with a set of military capabilities out of balance for existing needs. If the U.S. finds itself in a war, commanders today will struggle to execute their strategies for want of relevant weapon systems. This will see service men and women put their lives on the line trying to make up the difference.

We can avoid that fate, but that requires decisive action now. It demands resetting the strategy-resource gap so that ends, ways, and means align. It has been far too long since this has occurred when it comes to American airpower. It means reversing the current decline in the Air Force aircraft inventory that sees the service retiring 1,500 aircraft, while buying less than 500 over the next five-years. Following that plan will result in an Air Force even smaller, older, and less ready than it is today. The B-21 is arriving just in time to help correct that gap, but only if we face the reality of the threats we face and the nation buys the B-21 in the quantities the threat environment and our national defense strategy require.

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