The American Enterprise Institute recently pointed to the danger of the declining number of USAF bombers. Excerpts below:

If the United States lacks the necessary force structure to preclude armed conflict, it is questionable whether the US military would be able to prevail in a war.

When executing a military campaign in the western Pacific, size matters. Not only would there be a significant number of targets to strike, but the long distances between targets would spread combat assets thin.

For example, when the United States launched Operation Linebacker II—its final major air campaign of the Vietnam War—the Air Force operated B-52 strategic bombers out of two locations: Utapao Royal Navy Airfield in Thailand and Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. Although Utapao was actually a smaller installation than Anderson—able to accommodate only one third of the total B-52 force (51 at Utapao versus 150 at Anderson)—the U-Tapao crews actually flew nearly half the total number of bombing missions during this period.

The reason is simple. Thailand is virtually next door to Vietnam, while Guam is roughly 2,400 miles away. This meant that bombers based in Thailand were able to fly more sorties, or operational flights, in a given day than those based in Guam because they did not have to spend as much time in transit over the Pacific.

Today, US long-range strike capabilities are predominantly based out of Guam and areas beyond. During the Vietnam era, the United States had more than 500 B-52s.3 Today, the Air Force has only 134 combined B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s.

Of these assets, the B-2s are the only long-range strike aircraft that can penetrate enemy air defenses, conduct their missions deep within enemy territory, and survive.Given the force generation demands of a sustained air campaign, as few as four or five B-2s would likely be employed at a given time. These aircraft have not been in production for more than a decade, so existing aircraft are nearly two decades old and combat losses cannot be replaced. Its stealth attributes will be increasingly challenged when operating in increasingly sophisticated threat environments, as former Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley noted during an address to the Air Force Association.

The B-1 and B-52s predate modern stealth technology and would be restricted to a stand-off role. The United States lost fifteen B-52s during the twelve days of Linebacker II. Since that time, air defenses in the Asia-Pacific domain and elsewhere have grown far more lethal and complex. Although fighter assets could be used to conduct some attack missions, they lack sufficient range to strike targets deep within a country like China and lack the payload capacity of a bomber.

Although the advent of precision guided munitions enables individual aircraft to strike multiple targets on an individual sortie, successful air campaigns require parallel concurrent attacks to subvert an enemy’s war-making capacity through a massive collapse of key centers of gravity—command and control, infrastructure, logistics, and specific military units. Striking these targets gradually empowers an enemy with time to compensate for individual strike damage.

Considering that the average theater campaign has 30,000 enemy targets, it is also not financially feasible to strike such a high volume of enemy positions with expensive stand-off, or long-range, munitions like cruise missiles.

Numbers matter, and it is important to consider that hundreds of aircraft-dropped GPS-guided bombs, such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, can be acquired for the cost of one standoff cruise missile. Additionally, stand-off assets are generally less effective against mobile and time-sensitive targets. Their aim-point coordinates are set before launch, and when fired at range, their time before impact is normally measured in hours, not minutes.


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