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Is the Air Force Aiming at the Right Future Threats?
The rollout of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber shows the U.S.’ confidence in its strategic direction. But innovation must be supported by sufficient people and materiel
Last December, the U.S. Air Force unveiled its new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider. More of a modest display than a full reveal, the introduction only featured the photogenic front of the aircraft, leaving its stealth-enhancing trailing edges to the imagination for now. Nevertheless, the new bomber demonstrates that the Pentagon is doubling down on strategic bombers, stealth technologies and expensive per-unit aircraft programs. The prototype’s crucial first flight is scheduled for later this year.
While program officials noted that the B-21 seems to be—refreshingly—on budget and schedule, the plane has an estimated cost of $600 million each, and the Air Force says it wants at least 100 of them. We’ll see: Congress’ interest in funding the B-21 program over time remains to be seen.
The Raider rollout prompts several questions about the Air Force’s mission and priorities—and whether these are appropriate for the future military threats the United States and its allies are likely to face. The answers are crucial because of the long lead times required for typical aircraft programs, their demand on budgets and personnel and the fact that aircraft types—even individual airframes—are expected to serve for many decades. Is the Air Force devoting its talent and resources to deploy a winning combination of aircraft, weapons and supporting infrastructure to prevail in the great power conflicts expected to arise in the 21st century?
Big Bomber Benefits
Notably, the United States is the only country to operate strategic bombers. Russia and China field large bombers with long ranges and heavy bomb and missile payloads, including nuclear ones. However, none of these types is intended to penetrate the air defenses of a peer enemy, particularly at intercontinental distances. By contrast, the Air Force’s strategic bomber force forms a leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrence triad.
A major reason for that is the force’s flexibility. With strategic bombers, altering flight tactics and changing weapon loads can negate extensive—and expensive—air-defense systems. During the Cold War, geography forced the Soviet Union to deploy a deep and intricate network of radar, missile and interceptor bases to guard its vast territory from U.S. high-flying B-52 strategic bombers. When the Air Force transitioned to low-altitude penetration tactics with existing bombers armed with air-launched cruise missiles, the Soviet Union had to essentially scrap its old air-defense network and build a new one at colossal expense.
Moreover, strategic bombers may be employed in a wide range of roles other than strategic nuclear strike. The United States has a long history of using its heavy bomber force for conventional missions, from Korea and Vietnam through Iraq and ISIS. At the same time, such flexibility hardly justifies the tremendous added expense and maintenance burden of incorporating stealth technology when nonstrategic targets can be struck much more cheaply.
The main justification for the stealth strategic bomber is that it can force an enemy to reevaluate, if not completely revamp, its air-defense strategies and systems. Much as the U.S. did to the Soviets by changing bomber penetration tactics, stealth capabilities may enable aircraft to evade existing air-defense systems.
Stealth technology is a combination of shapes, materials and coatings that reduce—not eliminate—radar returns from the vehicle (e.g., aircraft or missile) that’s equipped with the technology. A simple way to visualize this is to think of a given radar site as an overturned bowl on a table, with the hemisphere being the radar’s range. However, the size of the bowl is not absolute: Aircraft that readily reflect radar face a larger bowl than a stealth aircraft does.
Designers of air-defense systems strive to cover the airspace they need to protect with a series of overlapping bowls. Since stealth aircraft shrink these bowls, gaps may appear in the coverage—gaps through which intruders may slip. Rather than making an aircraft “undetectable” by radar, stealth technology reduces the effective range of the searching radar.
The counter to this, of course, is the combined development of more effective radar technology and more numerous and densely packed radar sites. China is endeavoring to erect such a “great radar wall” along its coastal regions on the East China Sea. Defense analysts Michal Fiszer and Jerzy Gruszczyński, writing in Discourse last July, point out that China’s radar network monitors the entire eastern half of the country, where most of its population and potential military targets are located:
China has also made great strides in its stealth detection capabilities. The United States has made tremendous investments in stealth aircraft, including the F-22 air superiority fighter, F-35 strike fighter and B-2 Spirit strategic bomber. China has made countering this technology a priority. For example, the huge JY-27A radar uses synthetic aperture radar to accurately track stealth aircraft at reasonably long distances.
The new B-21 Raider, the would-be successor to the B-2, promises to challenge such “counter-stealth” detection technologies with new and, so far, secret low-observable capabilities. Intriguingly, the Air Force says unmanned systems, possibly in the form of “wingman” drones that accompany the bomber into enemy airspace as escorts, decoys and strike threats, will be key to the bomber’s ability to reach heavily defended targets.
To be sure, China is straining its intelligence-gathering apparatus to learn these secrets and tune its defenses accordingly. Such is the nature of military advances.
Air-Land War Dynamics: Learning From Ukraine
The Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense more broadly are very good at presenting new programs as just the ticket for tackling the challenges America and its allies are likely to encounter going forward. If these programs are complicated and expensive and rely on emerging technologies, some of which have yet to be developed, that’s nothing contractor ingenuity can’t overcome—on paper, at least. Unfortunately, the road of recent U.S. military procurement is littered with such efforts—many of them dead ends.
At least the B-21 aircraft itself is building on the operational experience and successes of its predecessor. This, combined with the relatively brisk and reportedly steady development program, bodes well for the bomber’s ultimate effectiveness. Yet the question remains: Does the new stealth bomber reflect the realities of modern warfare?
The current war in Ukraine may serve as a microcosm of what military planners can expect in the future. Given that Ukraine and Russia have a lot of the same types of equipment, albeit with Russia having decided advantages in modernization and numbers, the war may be viewed as a peer conflict. The dynamics of air combat, air defense and air-to-ground operations will be studied for years to come. Early lessons, such as the tempo of air operations and the effectiveness of drone systems, are already being revised by subsequent investigation and analysis.
As with any modern conflict, the top priority of the invading power is the suppression, if not destruction, of the enemy’s air-defense radar, missile systems and aircraft. A campaign to eliminate the threat of air-defense systems kicked off Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War, and a similar campaign opened the invasion of Ukraine.
Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute, writes that in the early stages of the war in Ukraine, Russia successfully suppressed or destroyed a number of Ukraine’s air-defense sites and caused all those mobile systems that were able to shut down and move undercover. This let the invaders range far and wide, with only Ukraine’s inferior air force to oppose them. The ranges of Russia’s radars were better, and their air-to-air missiles had longer range. As a result, Russia won most of the air combats but did suffer some losses.
Once the Ukrainian air defenses were able to go back online, however, the situation stabilized. Neither side has been able to get too close to the front line with their planes because of the threat of medium- and long-range air-defense missiles. Tactical airstrikes are conducted at low altitude, which carries its own set of dangers from short-range air-defense systems and accidents. Even much-heralded drone attacks became significantly less effective on both sides due to the air-defense environment.
In this situation, Bronk concludes, Ukraine faces a real danger of defeat due to Russian technical superiority in the air unless Western sources continue to provide effective air-defense systems and ammunition.
What the Air Force Must Address
The U.S. Air Force’s core investment in stealth technology seems likely to pay off. Any shortcomings of the oft-maligned F-35 Lightning II strike fighter should be compensated for by its extensive sensor suite and stealth capabilities, which should enable it to close on enemy aircraft and use its long-range air-to-air missiles before it is spotted. But there are two issues the Air Force needs to address aside from technology: gear and pilots.
Air campaigns place a huge demand on aircraft and munitions stocks, particularly guided weapons. For example, in describing just Russian fighter patrols over Ukraine Bronk said Russia has to fly more than 100 sorties a day in daylight. (That’s eight pairs of fighters at about two hours per sortie for about eight hours per day, every day for months.) And this is just the background noise of an air campaign. It doesn’t count strikes, special missions and scrambling in an emergency. It doesn’t count losses or maintenance issues. It’s been a very long time since the Air Force has had to wage this sort of war against a well-equipped enemy.
Which brings us to the issue of munitions. The burn-through rate of air-defense and strike missiles in modern warfare cannot be overemphasized. (The Russians air force seems well supplied with air-to-air missiles because Ukraine does not have that many planes.) In a modern war with a peer power, the Unites States is going to run its ammunition stocks down fast, particularly of its best, most high-tech missiles that give it the edge in combat. Production matters.
Finally, the service seems to be perennially short of pilots and other key personnel. This problem has been pressing for many years. It doesn’t matter how good your technology is, or even how much gear you have, if you can’t put good people in cockpits. It is alarming to think that the emphasis on uncrewed aircraft to perform a wider array of military missions is related to something other than mission effectiveness.
Last March, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall outlined “seven operational imperatives” the service needed to address in order to deter and, if necessary, defeat modern day adversaries. The ultimate goal is to be ready to transition to a wartime posture against a peer competitor. One of these imperatives involves defining the B-21’s role in achieving readiness. Perhaps if time allows.
The Air Force’s development of the B-21 strategic bomber, as well as its commitment to the F-35 stealth fighter, shows that technical innovation remains a key element of its airpower. Combined with many decades of operational experience fielding strategic bombers, fighters and strike aircraft, the United States remains peerless in the air. However, potential peer rivals are working to advance their own technologies as well as producing huge numbers of advanced weapons to challenge this edge.
Unless the United States is able to attract, train and deploy enough highly skilled people and support them with sufficient quantities of the best materiel, then all of the innovation and tactical agility might fall short against a determined and well-equipped enemy.