With the ink barely dry on Northrop Grumman’s contract to build a new fleet of long-range bombers for the U.S. Air Force, a group of lawmakers and defense strategists are already calling for the Pentagon to double its order.
A study published by an independent policy research group on Wednesday articulates their argument, calling for a modernized bomber force of 200 aircraft by 2045.
“A modernized and capable Air Force bomber force of 150 to 200 aircraft is required to maintain America’s asymmetric advantage in long-range precision strike over any potential future adversary,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller says in the study, published by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The phasing-out of the nation’s current fleet of B-1 and B-52 bombers in the 2030s makes the Air Force’s planned buy of 100 new bombers necessary, he continues. But increasingly sophisticated threats dictate that the Defense Department will need a substantially larger fleet to meet future national security challenges.
Last month the Pentagon awarded Northrop Grumman (“NOC”) the first portion of a planned $100 billion contract to develop and build 80 to 100 new stealth bombers. Those new planes would begin replacing the Air Force’s Cold War-vintage B-1s and B-52s starting in the 2030s.
Specifications for the new stealth jet are a closely held Pentagon secret, but the bomber would be capable of both conventional and nuclear strikes on distant targets as well as conduct surveillance and gather intelligence in heavily defended airspace. That kind of versatility is attractive to a cash-strapped Pentagon amid several major technology upgrade programs.
But the retirement of America’s B-1s and B-52s would put roughly 150 heavy bombers out of service, leaving 100 so-called Long Range Strike Bombers, or LRS-B, and 20 B-2 stealth bombers at the Air Force’s disposal. Those 120 aircraft won’t be enough to project power and meet various emerging threats, Moeller writes.
He’s not alone in thinking so. Defense News reports that bomber advocates on Capitol Hill, including South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds and Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, have vocalized their support for an expanded long-range bomber fleet. Heightened tensions in the vast Asia-Pacific theater and growing tensions with Russia are in part driving support for a greater long-range strike capability in Washington, D.C., as military planners look toward potential future conflicts.
Coming from a more analytic perspective, Moeller cites a number of studies on future bomber requirements conducted over the past two decades that suggest 120 aircraft simply can’t cover all of the Air Force’s needs. This largely stems from bombers’ competing roles. As a critical piece of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, some of the Air Force’s long-range bomber force must be held back at all times to maintain that role. That leaves fewer aircraft available for conventional combat or intelligence and surveillance missions. If the U.S. were to engage in a major armed confrontation—or find itself embroiled in two simultaneous conflicts—a fleet of 120 bombers would present military planners with the tough decision between shortchanging conventional forces or eroding its nuclear deterrent capability.
As such, many assessments of future bomber needs conducted over the past two decades call for 150 to 200 aircraft. Each report’s calculus is a little bit different, but even contemporary assessments tend to agree that a number closer to 200 makes better sense from a military perspective. During the release of a previous Mitchell Institute report, retired Lt. Gen. (and Mitchell Institute Dean) David Deptula said a grand total of 174 bombers should cover the Air Force’s potential bomber requirements going into mid-century: 120 aircraft for combat (12 each across 10 squadrons) plus 24 for testing and training as well as 30 in reserve to cover any losses.
Other experts carve up the math a bit differently, Moeller’s analysis shows, but by and large they come to a similar conclusion: 100 to 120 aircraft won’t cut it.
“Limiting production of the new bomber, LRS-B, to 100 airframes would severely decrease the options available to national decision-makers during times of crisis or periods of instability,” he writes in his analysis. “A modernized bomber force of 200 aircraft will sustain America’s asymmetric advantage in long-range precision strike for decades to come.”
Of course, a fleet of 200 bombers would also cost significantly more than the 80 to 100 the Air Force currently plans to order. Pulling together the necessary support within both Congress and the Pentagon to fund such an expansion could prove daunting—especially if Northrop Grumman fails to keep the new bomber on budget.
That’s not even the first hurdle facing the program. Before the Pentagon can even talk about doubling its fleet of new bombers it has to build the first 100. Last week the Air Force told Northrop Grumman to cease work on the LRS-B after Boeing (“BA”) and Lockheed Martin (“LMT”)—whose joint bid to build the LRS-B was edged out by Northrop’s—lodged an official protest of the Air Force’s decision. The Government Accountability Office has until February to evaluate the protest and decide if it’s valid, and thus how long the program may be tied up in bureaucratic limbo.
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