There are important things the B-1 and B-52 do that the B-21 won’t.
In 1957, the U.S. military began to worry that the Soviet Union might have more strategic bombers than the United States. That fear of a “bomber gap” turned out to be baseless, but today, a dangerous gap is emerging between the long-range strike capacity America needs and what will be available once today’s bombers retire. If not addressed, this new bomber gap might leave the United States and its allies more vulnerable to aggression much sooner than people realize.
While China and Russia aggressively pursue anti-access/area-denial strategies, the ability of bombers to employ standoff weapons will remain a linchpin of any U.S. strategy. In a near-peer conflict, how well the United States can employ massive waves of bombers might very well be the difference between victory and defeat. Non-stealth bombers such as the B-1 and B-52 have an important role to play in A2/AD scenarios because they can carry so many standoff weapons.
They also play an important role in deterrence and counterinsurgency operations. Non-stealth bombers send a visible signal to U.S. adversaries and can participate in any sort of allied exercise without betraying valuable intelligence. In a long-term conflict where the United States has air supremacy, such as in Afghanistan, bombers provide diverse and efficient options due to their weapons capacities and long loiter times. With the B-52 and B-1 headed for retirement, these capabilities are at risk.
Leaders should start the acquisition process for an affordable, modular, and non-stealth bomber to augment the B-21 Raider, the only bomber the U.S. plans to produce between now and 2050. The B-21 will be an exquisite but expensive aircraft and will not replace specific B-52 and B-1 capabilities. Starting this process now would prevent a bomber gap from disrupting the Air Force’s ability to counter China or Russia and would provide leaders valuable strategic off-ramps should acquisition plans change before 2050 (a year after China plans to become a dominant world power).
As it stands, the Air Force has done an admirable job of managing its aging bomber fleet. Still, when the B-52 retires in 2050, there will be only 100 B-21s in service, well short of the 225 bombers theoretically needed in the era of great power competition, a figure that reflects the findings of classified studies. Yet in 2019, Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray highlighted that the current game plan does not allow for a realistic path beyond 175 bombers.
The acquisition of 100 stealth B-21s, combined with the 75 existing B-52s, will result in a 175-bomber force before 2040 following the retirement of the B-2 and B-1. This compares favorably with the current fleet of about 140 bombers (75 B-52s, 20 B-2s, and 45 B-1s after the divestment of 17 aircraft).
However, questions remain. First, extending the B-52 to 2050 will mean replacing its engines and making other various upgrades, such as a new radar, to make it structurally viable and cost-efficient. Even if everything goes perfectly, there is no guarantee that the B-52 will last until 2050, when the jets will be nearly 90 years old. Structurally, the jet appears sound, but as the Air Force found out with the B-1, that assumption can change in an instant. Second, even if the B-52 does last until 2050, is it to be replaced? Or does the Air Force plan to have only one type of bomber in its inventory?
These issues are even more pressing considering the current state of the Air Force’s bomber fleet. Though the B-1 is younger than the B-52, the Rockwell-built bomber faces multiple structural issues after nearly two decades of continuous operations in Iraq and Syria. The Air Force saved the platform by temporarily standing it down in 2019, and the divestment of 17 aircraft will allow B-1 maintainers to focus on the best remaining jets. Like the B-52, there is no guarantee the B-1 will last until its planned retirement dates or will not need massive investments to do so. This is a problem, because analysts tend to assume that the United States will always have the long-range strike capacity it requires.
For example, in two War on the Rocks articles, authors debated whether the United States is prepared to counter China’s artificial islands. Gregory Poling argued that China’s man-made installations pose a significant problem for the United States. However, in a rebuttal, Olli Pekka Suorsa detailed how current and robust capabilities give the United States multiple options to deal with China’s outposts. What is disturbing about these debates, however, is how both authors take the current U.S. bomber fleet for granted. As Suorsa states, “Airpower would be at the forefront of an American approach to seriously degrade China’s ability to mount a substantial defense.” U.S. leaders seem to agree: as a CSIS analysis of the most recent budget request shows, leaders are giving the Air Force some priority in terms of resources. There is no mention, however, of any new bomber aside from the B-21.
Any major conflict with China is bound to be rife with difficulties, but even in Suorsa’s more optimistic assessment, the role of cruise missiles and bombers is critical. Stealth bombers such as the B-21 can penetrate A2/AD systems for targets requiring direct attack weapons, but non-stealth bombers can also provide hundreds of standoff weapons at the outset of hostilities. The same is true for Russia: even though the United States has bases and allies in the region, the sheer number of standoff weapons necessary to, for example, defeat the integrated air defenses of Kaliningrad, would require significant bomber participation.
Fighters also provide critical capabilities, but their ability to strike targets is limited due to their small payloads and short ranges. Fighters depend on bases and tankers relatively close to the front line, and in a major conflict involving waves of ballistic missiles, the security of these bases is a severe concern. Weapons capacity and the ability to deploy from long distances makes bombers indispensable, and as it stands, the United States is already lacking.
The Air Force has acknowledged this weapons-capacity issue by entertaining some novel ideas. The bomb truck concept, spearheaded by the Air Force’s assistant secretary of acquisitions, Dr. Will Roper, envisions modifying a civilian passenger or cargo jet to employ standoff weapons. Palletized munitions would allow cargo planes, such as a C-17, to convert their storage space into bomb bays capable of dropping ordinance.
Both the bomb truck and palletized munition options are appealing because of their low costs, but they are not long-term strategic answers. The truck would provide a short-term solution and would likely only carry a small number of standoff weapons. Palletized munitions might be a fantasy given the already limited supply and high demand for airlift assets.
Therefore, if 225 bombers are required, why not just buy 225 B-21s? The obvious answer is price: the Air Force might be lucky to only get 100 B-21s. Additionally, relying on a stealth-only bomber force would also rob the United States of important capabilities.
Of course, if a major conflict erupts and only 100 B-21s are available, other assets might pick up critical targets. The Army and Navy are working on hypersonic missiles, and the Space Force recently released its first capstone doctrine, which mentions “offensive weapons to deter adversaries from hostile actions.” The Army has ATACMS and is pursuing long-range precision fires, even if they would be inherently susceptible to ballistic missile reprisals. These emerging weapons might be enough to cover the bomber gap in a major conflict with Russia or China.
However, they would also be impractical and expensive for a sustained campaign against extremists in broken states. It is probably wishful thinking to hope that the United States will not get sucked into another conflict that would require what the B-52 and B-1 provided for decades in the Middle East: persistent and flexible weapons availability. The B-21, if it is an advanced version of the B-2, will not be appropriate for CAS (or many other low-risk missions) because of its payload, sensors, and the need to protect its signature profile. The same is true for the deterrence operations EUCOM and PACOM employ, where the B-1 and B-52 prove their ability to employ from long-distances with a whole host of allies. The B-21 will also not have the external carriage capabilities of the B-52, meaning that it will have less flexibility to carry any newly acquired weapon.
This argument mirrors that of the F-35 versus the F-15EX, where stealth capabilities come at the price of more flexible—and perhaps more realistically necessary—employment.
Great power competition demands the ability to efficiently counter China and Russia, conduct Afghanistan-style operations, and be fiscally responsible. Even if it were fiscally possible to acquire 225 B-21s, the price tag would presumably be astronomical, and Air Force’s bomber fleet would suddenly only be appropriate for selective missions.
The right choice
A proper acquisition strategy, therefore, should emphasize flexibility and redundant options. It is difficult to anticipate, in a conflict with Russia or China, what the tactical situation will be, how effective enemy A2/AD efforts become, or even if the United States can protect its homeland bases from conventional threats such as hypersonics. If the United States wishes to deter Russia and China in the future, it must continually expand its weapons delivery options. On many fronts, military leaders are doing just that. But ignoring the bomber fleet or reducing it to only 100 B-21s forfeits the opportunity to pursue flexible strategies at a relatively low cost.
Starting the acquisition process for a next-generation B-52, or the Next-Generation Strategic Bomber (this is the author’s term, not an official Air Force phrase) is the solution. It may seem early to start considering a replacement when the B-52 should fly until 2050, but acquisition programs can take decades. More importantly, starting now would allow leaders to accelerate the program and cover any bomber gaps should the B-52 fail before 2050, or if Congress declines to buy the planned number of B-21s (as happened with the B-2 or F-22).
The NGSB, to be affordable and flexible, would be a non-stealth, modular aircraft designed to accept defensive and offensive upgrades rapidly. Unlike the B-52, it should be able to land at any large airfield easily. To be nuclear-certified, the NGSB should be manned but require only two aircrew members, like a B-2 or an F-15E. Given its dynamic nature, the “pilot and weapons system officer” model might be most appropriate.
The crew compartment, like a B-52, could have room for up to 10 people, to allow for extra pilots, maintenance, security, and intelligence personnel. These airmen would make the NGSB expeditionary and able to operate in unpredictable environments. Such an aircraft would be able to conduct bomber task forces or combat operations from any global region.
In theory, the NGSB could reduce risks and improve performance by being unmanned, but unless a paradigm shift in U.S. thinking occurred, such a bomber would not be allowed to carry nuclear weapons. If the point of having nuclear weapons is to—if necessary—win a nuclear war, it seems irresponsible to self-eliminate the portion of the bomber force capable of carrying standoff nuclear weapons and being a highly visible symbol of deterrence (just as the B-52 is today). Considering the costs and vulnerabilities associated with unmanned operations and support systems, it might not be worth the loss of nuclear capability.
The NGSB should have the ability to carry weapons both externally and internally, in at least two bomb bays. The radar cross-section, which is how easily an aircraft is visible on an enemy’s radar, should be like that of a B-1. This cross-section would not be an expensive stealth capability, but it would, for technical reasons, make several defensive options viable.
In 2050—or earlier, if necessary—the combination of 100 to 200 B-21s and a cheap NGSB option would make the existence of over 225 bombers feasible. Worst case, an NGSB would give leaders options should financial realities intervene.
Addressing the bomber gap will allow the United States to deter Russia and China while simultaneously handling smaller conflicts more efficiently in the future. Not doing so, and depending solely on exquisite and expensive new technologies, leaves the nation vulnerable.
Maj. Shane Praiswater is a visiting military analyst at the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other government agency.
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