Heavy bombers, among the most successful weapons in Gulf War II, are back in the spotlight. There are concerns about the fleet’s size and longevity.
Two primary issues have surfaced. First, the Air Force has decided to reconsider the question of putting new engines in its venerable B-52H bombers. USAF earlier had said no. Second, lawmakers want the service to bring back some of the B-1B bombers it just retired in a cost-saving move.
Seven years ago, the Air Force considered the B-52 re-engining option but dropped the idea as it retooled its long-range bomber roadmap. At the time, officials thought putting new power plants on the 41-year-old bomber would cost too much when compared to marginal gains in fuel efficiencies and reduced maintenance.
A recent Defense Science Board report recommended that the Air Force take a second look at that earlier decision. The DSB found that the service had underestimated the maintenance savings that would result from re-engining the BUFF fleet.
In its 1996 analysis, the Air Force had looked at replacing the B-52’s eight engines with four commercially derived turbofans. Now, say service officials, there could be substantive performance benefits from going to a newer eight-engine configuration that would enable the bomber to take off from shorter runways, climb faster, and carry a heavier payload.
The Air Force expects to complete a new re-engining study effort and define the program cost sometime this fall.
Meanwhile, service officials are in a quandary about the B-1B bomber. Two years ago, USAF announced the retirement of 32 B-1Bs to free up enough money to fund upgrades and spare parts for the 60 remaining B-1Bs. Now, some or all may return to active service.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, inserted $20 million in the Fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill to start the process of bringing back to service 23 of those 32 B-1Bs. The measure passed the full House on July 8.
The committee noted that the B-1B was “crucial to the success of recent combat operations.” The panel further maintained that long-range strike capabilities are “critical” when access to overseas bases is limited or under political threat.
However, the Air Force dispatched only a handful of B-1Bs to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and, while they performed well, service officials said there was no need to use all that were in the theater. Officials also noted that $20 million is not nearly enough to support the return of 23 aircraft. The Congressional action, they added, would leave the service with an unfunded mandate which could be fulfilled only with additional appropriations totaling more than a billion dollars.
The Senate’s version of the defense bill did not include a B-1B buyback.
Rumsfeld Rethinks the Reserves
In early July, service leaders in Washington got orders to rethink how and when they employ National Guard and Reserve forces. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told them in a July 9 memo that the current capabilities balance between active and reserve components is “not the best for the future.” He wants change.
Half a world away, President Bush declared, responding to a reporter in South Africa, “We won’t overextend our troops, period.”
Many lawmakers are worried about possible overuse of US forces—particularly in regard to Guard and Reserve forces.
Several US Senators, returning from a visit to Iraq, predicted a very long stay for American troops. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asserted that US forces were “stretched very thin.” The committee chairman, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), did not go that far, but he did say that, while US forces overall are at levels “able to carry out the missions ... we must look very prudently when we ask more of them.”
Rumsfeld’s directive puts him somewhat at odds with 30 years of Total Force policy, which had long called for mobilization of large numbers of reserves in the event the US conducts a major operation. This was a deliberate move, taken in the wake of Vietnam, to make sure that the US public would be engaged in decisions about any future war.
After the end of the Cold War, moreover, the Pentagon emphasized a growing reliance on reserve forces and, during the downsizing of the 1990s, shifted some duties from the active forces to the reserves.
At issue, as well, is whether the new direction would inevitably bring about an increase in active duty end strength, something Rumsfeld has steadfastly opposed.
In his memo, Rumsfeld declared that he wants to limit involuntary mobilizations of individual reservists to “not more than one every six years.” Moreover, he wants to ban any involuntary mobilizations in the “first 15 days of a rapid response operation.”Rumsfeld instructed Pentagon leaders to give reservists “meaningful work” that cannot be accomplished by other “readily available” manpower. He also wants reserves to remain on active duty “only as long as absolutely necessary.”
The Pentagon chief called execution of these measures “a matter of utmost urgency.”Rumsfeld asked each service to produce, by July 31, an assessment outlining its plans to correct imbalances between active and reserve forces and to reduce dependence on reserves in early deploying units. He pointed specifically to capabilities that reside exclusively or predominantly within the reserves and that have been in high demand for the war on terrorism.
The Air Force, which is considered the service model for the Total Force policy, believes it already has about the right balance of active to reserve forces. However, service officials do admit to some problems. For instance, the US military’s only EC-130 Commando Solo psychological warfare aircraft unit—a high-demand capability—falls under the Air National Guard. (See “Total Force in a Search for Balance,” p. 32.)
The Boeing Case
The Air Force has punished Boeing in ways that will cost the company about $1 billion in lost business and penalties. This is a result of what the service called “serious violations” of contracting rules that occurred during the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle competition in October 1998. The sanctions could threaten Boeing’s survival in the space launch market.
Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force, announced the penalties at a Pentagon press conference July 24.
Teets said a service investigation found that some Boeing officials possessed 25,000 pages of stolen Lockheed Martin EELV proprietary information. That information could have helped Boeing win the lion’s share of the first EELV contract, he said.
Moreover, maintained Teets, “Boeing was not forthcoming with the Air Force about the amount of Lockheed data in its possession, and it took approximately four years for them to provide us with all of it.”
Teets declared that three Boeing divisions and three Boeing employees were suspended from doing business with the government for an “indefinite” period. He also said DOD would transfer to Lockheed Martin seven EELV contracts previously awarded to Boeing. Teets granted Lockheed Martin permission to establish a launchpad capability at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., providing $200 million in Air Force funds to help it do so. (After the original competition, Lockheed decided that it was not worth the investment to develop a launch capability at Vandenberg.)
The case is not closed. Teets noted that the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the case and that Lockheed Martin has launched a civil suit.
Boeing CEO Philip M. Condit, in a written statement, apologized for the company’s actions and said that, while the company is “disappointed” by the Air Force action, Boeing understands the service’s position that “unethical behavior will not be tolerated.”
Teets acknowledged he is “concerned” that the stiff sanctions might drive Boeing from the launch services market. However, he said, the Air Force cannot “tolerate breaches of procurement integrity” and must “hold industry accountable for the actions of their employees.”
Teets explained, though, that one of his highest priorities as DOD’s top space executive is to ensure the nation has “two healthy families of launch vehicles” to maintain assured access to space. Because of that, he said the structure of the penalties will enable Boeing to continue competing for new launch business.
If Boeing demonstrates that it has moved quickly and decisively to curb unethical practices in its rocket business, Teets said, the Air Force can lift the suspensions—possibly in as little as 60-90 days. That would mean Boeing could compete, later this year, for the next round of 15 to 20 EELV launches.
However, Teets said, if Boeing fails to “respond strongly” and show its serious intent to fix its corporate culture, the suspensions could become debarments.
Perry: North Korea an “Imminent Danger”
North Korea’s nuclear weapons thrust has created a crisis which could result in war only a few months from now, according to former Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
Perry drew attention from all quarters when he told the Washington Post in a July interview, “The nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities.” Later, on PBS’s “Newshour With Jim Lehrer,” Perry explained that he referred not to a North Korean nuclear missile attack but to a suitcase-type nuclear bomb that North Korea would either dispatch itself or sell to a terrorist group bent on attacking America.
In July, North Korean officials claimed Pyongyang had reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into plutonium—enough for a half-dozen nuclear weapons.
Chinese intelligence officials confirmed that reprocessing was under way, but they estimated a lower number of rods than claimed by the North Koreans. US intelligence reported that Krypton-35—a gas by-product of fuel rod reprocessing—had been detected near the demilitarized zone and probably emanated from a previously unknown facility.
As Defense Secretary in the Clinton Administration, Perry oversaw plans for air strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities during a standoff on its weapons program. Clinton opted instead to cut a deal that provided North Korea with aid, including nuclear power-generation technology, in exchange for North Korea’s assurances that it would halt its weapons program. Last year, Pyongyang announced it had gone ahead with its nuclear weapons program.
Perry said that Bush should engage in direct talks and “coercive diplomacy,” which he defined as negotiation “backed up by a credible threat” of military action.
Bush has consistently said that a nuclear-armed North Korea is “unacceptable” but that the US would prefer a multilateral solution to the situation, which the Administration refuses to describe as a “crisis.” Three-way talks have taken place between North Korea, China, and the US, but the talks have not proved productive.
The ABL Meets the Physicists
USAF’s Airborne Laser probably will work against liquid-fueled theater-range ballistic missiles, but its prospective use against ICBMs, particularly those having solid propellants, could be much less successful, according to a report of private experts that was released in Washington in July.
The finding was part of a 400-page technical report prepared by the American Physical Society, a group of 40,000 physicists. The report identified a number of technical challenges within the Administration’s proposed missile defense program that now includes the ABL.
The report, which dedicated about 80 pages to the ABL issue, found an audience on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers pressed the Missile Defense Agency for a thorough response.
MDA said the report was under review and would not comment on it directly, except to say that MDA officials believe the current boost-phase architecture is sound and that the missile defense program is “headed in the right direction.”
MDA declared that it would conduct a thorough review of boost-phase progress and problems by December, “before any investments are made in a development activity.”
Agency officials emphasized that they “continue to believe that boost-phase technology has great potential for playing a vital role in a layered missile defense.”
The Airborne Laser was intended originally only to shoot down theater missiles as a means to protect US and allied forces during overseas operations. (See “Setting a Course for the Airborne Laser,” p. 46.) The ABL still enjoys support on Capitol Hill.
The physicists believe that the ABL can perform its original mission—that is, it likely will work against short-range, liquid-fueled rockets, if the ABL achieves projected power levels with its high energy laser. However, they maintain that distance to the target is critical. If the distance is too great (more than 372 miles on the ground), they say, the laser’s power will fade, causing the ABL to have to focus the laser on the target for longer periods of time to achieve a kill.
A longer attack duration will use more laser fuel—reducing the number of shots the ABL can make and the number of targets it can engage. The report concluded that the ABL, to counteract the range problem, would have to orbit very close to enemy territory, putting it at risk from attack by enemy air defenses.
The physicists argue that solid-fueled ICBMs present an even greater challenge. There are two main obstacles: the ICBM’s tougher “skin” and greater speed.
The ABL works by heating up a missile’s skin and causing its fuel tank to rupture. Thus, say the physicists, it would be less effective against a solid-fueled booster, which has a stronger body to withstand its own internal fuel combustion. They estimate the ABL would need to be within about 190 miles (ground range) to be effective against a solid-fueled ICBM.
Solid-fueled rockets also fly faster than liquid-fueled rockets and over longer ranges. The targeting task would be much more difficult and require much more precision, said the report.
Patrick P. Caruana, an executive with Northrop Grumman, which is a principal ABL contractor, told Air Force Magazine that targeting is an issue, but it is a manageable one.
He pointed out that a related program, the Army’s Tactical High-Energy Laser, has proved effective against live-fire incoming artillery shells. “And that’s not a thin-skinned fuel tank,” said Caruana. “That’s a stainless steel casing.”
Northrop Grumman determined, after much research, that there was a vulnerable point on the artillery shell. The THEL was able to maintain the laser on that point and destroy the artillery shell.
However, the shell was tracked and lased at fairly close range.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to Hill AFB, Utah,
conducts a training flight with F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to Kunsan
AB, Republic of Korea, over the city of Gunsan, on Dec. 1, 2017,
in preparation for Vigilant Ace 18.
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