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May 6, 2009—A Senate hearing last week by a committee ostensibly concerned with tactical airpower issues spent much of its time on Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposed cancellation of the 2018 bomber. Gates declared on April 6 that the Pentagon must have a "better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology" before proceeding with a next-generation bomber. However, many believe that the NGB is ready to move forward and that plans to shelve it are shortsighted at best.

"We've studied that issue to death for the last decade— the Air Force, OSD, everybody else under the sun," declared Barry Watts, former Pentagon weapons program policy and evaluation chief and now senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, during the Senate Armed Services airland panel hearing April 29.

He continued, "The need, the requirement, and the technology are all pretty much in hand and reasonably well understood."

While Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he admires Gates' desire to restructure a number of US military weapons programs, he believes Gates has "struck an inappropriate balance in favor of short-range systems vs. long-range- strike aircraft." And, that bias, he said, is "no better reflected than in what he wants to do with the next-generation bomber program." (Thune is one of a number of Senators who have appealed to President Obama not to forestall work on the NGB.)

Thune pointed out that the decision to press ahead with a so-called 2018 bomber "was already fully vetted in the 2006 [Quadrennial Defense Review]." (The 2006 QDR instructed the Air Force to deploy the NGB by 2018.) And, Thune stated that several current combatant commanders had told him they think the Pentagon should continue NGB development now.

Indeed, Watts noted that the only US platform that would have "a serious capability" to execute missions against future targets in defended air space with advanced air defenses are USAF's 20 remaining B-2 bombers, which he said, "are getting a little long in the tooth."

As to the need, requirement, and technology argument, Watts offered this rationale:

Need—US global responsibilities dictate a "credible capability to hold targets at risk anywhere on the globe."

Requirement is two-fold—
¾ Many conventional scenarios "emphasize the need for long reach" that cannot be met by short-range fighters even with air refueling.
¾ Because adversaries now know the US can put a precision weapon on a particular target "very quickly and efficiently," they play a "hider-finder game" which "suggests a need to be able to persist inside defended airspace and wait for those targets to reveal themselves."

Technology—"Most of it, really, is in hand, [because] an awful lot of the avionics, the low- observability technology, and things like that, can be found in the … fifth-generation platforms that we've been building."

Watts did acknowledge that he thinks the "2018 goal was very ambitious." Instead, he suggested that a more reasonable goal to have a new bomber in the field would be another 10 to 12 years, say 2020 or shortly thereafter. That is, he emphasized, if the Pentagon sticks with a high-subsonic, high-altitude platform and runs "a very disciplined development program." If the Pentagon opts, instead, to pursue a hypersonic cruise vehicle for this next bomber that would be "stretching all kinds of technologies—material technologies, engine-propulsion technologies," said Watts. And, that would take until 2030 or even 2040.

Thune suggested that the other reason Gates wants to postpone work on the NGB, namely to await new nuclear arms-control negotiations, is "problematic." He said that although it seems "reasonable on its face, waiting until a new START treaty is negotiated and ratified by the Senate could, literally, take years." And, he noted that experts say the date to start those negotiations "could already be slipping to the right."

The Senator from South Dakota asked the panel's witnesses, "In your view, is the present bomber fleet sufficient to hold targets deep in defended air space, at risk over the next 25 to 30 years?"

Retired Gen. Richard Hawley, former head of Air Combat Command and now a defense consultant, responded that the 20 B-2 bombers "are the only remaining part of the bomber force that is likely to be able to penetrate and do the job that we expect of this class of weapons systems, against any serious adversary, 20 or 30 years hence." However, even given upgrades to the B-2 force, he questioned whether they would be "what we need against a very confident adversary."

Hawley said: "The assumption that I think is underlying many of these decisions is that there isn't going to be a really serious adversary out there. … If we, as a nation, believe that we need to be prepared for the more difficult challenge of a serious adversary, with well-funded and well-planned forces, then we need something beyond the current bomber force. And that's the next-generation bomber that has just been put on hold."

Hawley reminded the Senators, too, that during the Vietnam War the US "faced a third-rate adversary, fielded an Air Force of about 200 airplanes at any given time, and we lost over 2,200 fixed-wing airplanes in that contest." He said that going into "one of these fights unprepared" would lead to "horrendous losses" just as it did in Vietnam where "we wound up with a lot of good people who were held as POWs for a long period of time."

Watts agreed, saying that his answer to the question whether the current bomber force "can be confidently counted on, relied upon, to carry us through the next 20 or 30 years … would be, no, I don't think so."

Watts believes "there is still considerable disagreement about whether to go forward, particularly within portions of OSD." He added that some of them, unfortunately, show "a tendency to get mesmerized by sort of technology promises further out on the horizon." Instead, he said, the focus should be on the fact that having only 20 B-2s available is not enough, given the fact that "attrition occurs even in peacetime, much less in wartime."

In Watts view, "that residual 20-airplane fleet is very thin."

The Conventional Bomber

Watts also reminded the Senators that a bomber is "a very flexible platform. It has, if you will, dual utility." He said that although the B-1, B-52, and the B-2 were designed as nuclear platforms, they "have never dropped a nuclear weapons in anger, but they have been used in every war since Vietnam to deliver conventional munitions."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the airland panel, asked for clarification, "You're saying that the bombers don't have just strategic value to us, but conventional, as well?" That would give his panel, as well as the strategic forces panel, jurisdiction over this platform.

"The conventional utility of the platform, I don't believe, was really taken into account," Watts replied, adding, "The jurisdictional division between the other subcommittee [strategic forces] and this one emphasizes the degree to which bombers tend to fall conceptually in the cracks."

The addition of conventional precision weapons to the bomber force "increases their utility in the long term, significantly," stated Watts. For example, he noted the "really important and impressive" use of the Joint Direct Attack Munition-equipped B-1 bombers, which could "just hang out overhead and drop on GPS aimpoints on call" when the ground forces needed them during high-tempo combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said, "That capability can be used day-in and day-out, even in hybrid conflicts."

Hawley concurred, saying, "This idea that they are only useful in strategic contexts is very dated." He said the high-payload and long-loiter time capabilities of today's bombers make them "high-utility systems across the full spectrum of modern warfare."

For coverage of testimony about the planned curtailment of F-22 fighters and C-17 airlifters from the April 29 hearing, read the following Daily Report entries:

F-22, C-17 Decisions Based on Suspect Logic

The Budget Sacrifice

The Deterrent Factor