The Air Force Is Rebuilding Its Pacific Plans Around the B-21
A “daily flyer” bomber that’s also an intel-and-communications hub will make the entire service less vulnerable in a potential war with China, officials say.
The Air Force is reworking its concepts for Pacific operations around the nascent B-21 bomber, which will fly and do much more than its predecessors, officials say. The stealthy jet will help the service accelerate its operations in the region, they say, and even reduce the service’s great vulnerability in a conflict with China: too many big planes sitting around on too few island runways.
“It's going to have fantastic sensors and of course it will have lots of options for weapons to be employed as well as other effects that it can create,” Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said Monday at the Mitchell Institute. “The pilot-to-vehicle interface on that aircraft is a leap in capability compared to the B-2, and so the speed at which the crew can cycle through the threats and then get weapons on target is significantly faster.”
The bomber’s ability to act as an airborne data hub is a huge new advantage, Wilsbach said. He said the B-21 will act as an organizing communications hub in larger, joint all-domain command-and-control schemes, helping to collect and send data to other jets and drones alongside it.
The “network between the B- 21 formations that are out there” will be “a game-changer from the standpoint of being able to get ordnance on targets faster at a rate that the that the enemy, whoever that might be, will have a hard time responding to in a coherent way,” the general said.
The B-21 was built to handle a heavy workload, Wilsbach said.
“The aircraft was designed to be a daily flyer,” he said. “It’s maintenance- friendly. You can quickly repair it when it has a break and get it back up in the air and so you don't have extended periods of time where it's on the ground.
But the plane is only part of the process. The Air Force is working to move parts and technicians to more places so that they are on hand when needed, Brig. Gen. Kenyon Bell, the director of logistics and engineering for Air Force Global Strike Command, told Defense One.
“So the tyranny of distance is certainly going to come into play. But our ability to be able to forward-position assets, so that if we had to go anywhere on the globe, that we would have assets available to be able to employ our weapons when we need them” eases the problem, Bell said.
The service’s recent 2024 budget request includes several hundred million dollars for pre-positioned equipment, Wilsbach said.
“One of the aspects of actual combat employment that's difficult to do is logistics, especially logistics that's under attack,” he said. “Our thought is, if we preposition some of the equipment that we might need, especially in the early days of a potential conflict, you relieve some of that burden to get logistics in there immediately. And so we're already beginning to preposition.”
But supporting the expeditionary operations of a diverse bomber fleet is an incredibly complex task, said Bell, who spoke as part of Defense One’s “State of Defense” series. The 70-year-old B-52, for example, requires huge amounts of fuel, many hard-to-find parts, and gargantuan runways.
For the B-52, Bell said, his command looks at managing contracts so that they have more flexibility in buying replacement parts, rather than waiting on bulk buys. He also wants to make more use of 3D-printed parts, and has exhorted his command to figure out how to use this “exciting” technology on their strictly regulated nuclear-capable aircraft.
“What I have frequently talked to our team and our enterprise about is: let's not hide behind nuclear certification as a roadblock. But let's work with and through the nuclear certification process to utilize some of these new technologies. Yes, it will be challenging. But it does not make it impossible to do. So, yes, we are also taking advantage of additive manufacturing. We also have something within the Air Force called the Rapid Sustainment Office, which is leading some of that technology for us.”
Wilsbach said the United States is trying to gain access to more bases and build longer runways across the Pacific, as part of a three-year-old effort called agile combat employment.
“We are looking for as many airfields as we can have access to, to disperse the force. It'll be hopefully in next year's budget: expanding airfields so that we can operate off of them,” he said. “A lot of the budget money that we're spending this year is not to build permanent bases but rather to expand runways that are not quite long enough, to expand ramp space that aren't quite big enough for the number of aircraft that we'd like to place there and for fuel ammunition storage and things like that.”
But China will have enough missiles to crater runways no matter how many the United States builds or rents. So the Air Force is also deploying new technologies to get damaged airstrips back in service. .
“This quick-drying concrete that we have—you pour it and it's the consistency of a milkshake when it goes in the hole, and 45 minutes later you can walk on it,” Wilsbach said. “Three hours later, you can land a C-17 on it. So it dries really that fast.”
U.S. officials have said that China may invade Taiwan as early as next year. Wilsbach said a fight in the Pacific would be on a scale the world has not seen since World War II. But, he says, China is learning from Russia’s hardship in Ukraine and discovering that without air superiority, no on-the-ground victory is possible. And a Chinese assault on Taiwan would face obstacles that Russia did not encounter in its attempt to take Kyiv.
“China has the most difficult military operation there is to do, which is an amphibious landing coordinated with an air assault over 100 miles of ocean, and it's a similar adversary that would fight just like Ukraine,” he said.”You know, we have seen a country that is determined to defend themselves. In the discussions that I have with my counterparts in Taiwan, they tell me they will be similar.”