There are some who question whether the Air Force’s planned Next Generation Bomber is needed. An example is this article published by the liberal CPI, wherein David Axe asked many questions that are easy to answer. In this paper, I will answer them and thus show why the NGB is absolutely needed.
First, I’ll rebut his questions regarding the requirement for next-gen bomber, and then, explain why it can be developed and produced affordably.
The requirement is clear, and it’s undisputable. The air defense systems of China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and even North Korea are dense, very deadly, and, excepting Iran and North Korea for now, very modern. Russian and Chinese air defense systems have proliferated and continue to proliferate globally.
Any notion that the B-52 or the B-1 could survive in such an environment is ridiculous and not supported by any facts. The B-52 and the B-1 would be useless in any defended airspace; nowadays, they’re useful only for COIN campaigns in very benign environments where the only opponents are insurgents unable to contest control of the air. David Axe touts these bombers’ upgrades, but these “upgrades” won’t make them viable in any contested airspace. These bombers are not stealthy, due to a lack of both a stealthy shape AND radar-absorbent materials. No amount of upgrades or even RAMs can overcome this huge deficiency. It’s inherent in these bombers’ nonstealthy design with perfect radar wave reflectors. Even legacy Soviet SAM systems like the SA-2, SA-3, SA-4, SA-5, and SA-6, with upgraded radar, could easily detect and shoot down these aircraft – and they were widely exported. Matters are even worse if you’re facing the S-300 (which Russia, Belarus, China, and Venezuela all have), China’s HQ-9 and HQ-16, or Russia’s S-400.
For purposes of any campaigns in any contested airspace, the B-52 and the B-1 practically do not exist, leaving the USAF with just 20 B-2s. But B-2s’ stealth technology is 1980s’ vintage. They won’t remain stealthy forever. Even if they did, 20 stealthy bombers are insufficient for campaigns against anyone but a trivial opponent. Bombing campaigns against the forementioned countries would require a huge number of sorties, and consequently, a LARGE number of stealthy bombers.
Cruise missiles are no substitute for the NGB. Even buying 50,000 of them would not help, as they are easily detectable and easy to shoot down. So if the USAF bought 50,000 cruise missiles, the vast majority of them would be easily shot down by the opponent’s air defense systems, and only a tiny minority of them would reach their targets. Now THAT would be a real waste of money – NOT buying a needed next-gen bomber.
Cruise missiles are also TOO EXPENSIVE to be used en masse, which is what Axe and others seem to be proposing. The reason why so few Tomahawks have been used in past wars is because… they’re too expensive. In 1996, CENTAF commander Gen. Chuck Horner was ordered to stop launching Tomahawks after just 100 were used because of their cost. Moreover, once you expend a cruise missile, you can’t use it again. It’s gone. Money is thus blown. By contrast, a bomber, once you buy it, can fly for 50 years or more. It’s an investment you make that pays off many times over during several decades.
Bombing campaigns over China – if the PRC starts a war – are viable and would be necessary to break the PRC’s back (and thus to win). The point of wars is WINNING, not achieving a draw. What Wayne Hughes (cited by Axe) is proposing is self-limiting, which would lead to self-defeat. He’s proposing a limited war doctrine of the same kind that caused defeat in Vietnam and nearly caused defeat in Korea.
Winning in war requires breaking the enemy’s capability and/or willingness to make war. Winning any war against China (or any other adversary) requires breaking its warmaking capability, which requires large-scale strikes against its military bases, nuclear/ballistic missile stockpiles, weapon factories, bunkers, and military units/SAM batteries/missile regiments. That can only be done by bombers.
Secondly, can the USAF deliver the bomber on budget?
If it pursues it in a no-frills manner as promised, it can. There are BIG differences between this program and the B-2. The B-2 was designed from stratch, and used mostly new parts. The NGB will have very few new components and will mostly use parts already used for other aircraft – from mission computers, to engines, to radar, to bomb bay and landing gear bay doors, to the landing gear itself.
The CSBA’s Mark Gunzinger has estimated that such a bomber, with a 20,000 lb payload, would cost only $440 mn dollars, not $550 mn, so the USAF has probably planned for a large MOE. He furthermore listed several ways in which the DOD could achieve the low $440 mn unit cost, including reusing existing aircraft parts, fully funding the EMD phase, and purchasing enough test vehicles to weed out any bugs.
Furthermore, the total projected program cost – $55 bn – is the cost of the TOTAL program over its duration over many decades. Even if it lasted only one decade, it would be only $5.5 bn per year. If it’s done over 2 decades, it will cost only $2.75 bn annually.
Removing a pilot cockpit would save only a pittance. It would reduce the aircraft’s weight, and thus cost, only by 4%, as it wouldn’t make a meaningful difference in the weight of a large, heavy plan like a bomber. The DOD buys planes by the pound, so no large weight savings mean no large cost savings. Yet, a drone would be VERY vulnerable. Its comm links could break down or be jammed by the enemy, who could also commandeer a drone; or it could somehow else go haywire. The capture of a Sentinel drone by the Iranians proved this.
BTW, Axe is contradicting himself. He repeatedly underlines the risks related to an unmanned plane’s development (let alone as large as a bomber), yet, he claims that making the bomber unmanned would yield savings which Robert Gates and Gen. James Cartwright dreamed about. So he’s contradicting itself. Which is it, Mr Axe? Would an unmanned bomber be less or more costly and risky than a manned one?
And if an optionally manned bomber – the solution offering the USAF maximum flexibility – becomes too risky to develop, the Service can make it purely manned. Problem solved.
Thirdly, the article by Axe contains many false claims about how the B-2 and NGB sagas unfolded.
The B-2 did NOT cost $3 bn dollars to purchase, not even including R&D funds. It cost only $1.2 bn to buy, and only including research and development costs. Even then, it would have cost significantly less if the DOD had bought the 132 bombers originally planned (as it should have), instead of a puny 21. Unfortunately, the hunt for the “peace dividend” was already underway, so the B-2 was killed along with many other crucial weapon programs. As a result of these idiotic decisions, America’s long-range conventional strike capability is now limited to 20 stealthy bombers.
The NGB was not killed because the USAF overloaded it with pricey gizmos. It was killed for purely political reasons, due to Obama’s desire for defense cuts (to fund his unconstitutional domestic programs), and of course, Cartwright’s meddling, as the defense weakling and strident liberal who was then the VCJCS didn’t want America to have any weapon that could challenge China or Russia. (Cartwright, as the leader of the “Global Zero” group, has recently proposed that America essentially unilaterally disarm itself while Russia, China, and others are building up their nuclear arsenals. That should tell you a lot about his leftist ideology.)
But Gates endorsed a new bomber program in 2010 – while Cartwright was still VC of the JCS still the frontrunner for Chairman. He did so after the DOD’s 2010 QDR, in a holistic analysis, found a real need for the NGB. Gates consequently requested 200 mn for the NGB in the FY2011 defense budget – a year earlier than Axe claims. Meanwhile, the CSBA, which Axe likes to quote, found in its own holistic, impartial analysis, that 100 NGBs are indeed very much needed, and that without them, the USAF will lose its long range penetration capability when the B-2 loses its.
Gates has reaffirmed the need for the NGB several times since then, as has his successor, two successive CSAFs, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, multiple retired USAF generals, and analysts from the CSBA, the Heritage Foundation, the National Defense University, and other entities.
And if Leon Panetta, faced with a $487 bn (and potentially $1 trillion) cut to his department’s budget took care to find money for the NGB, it must be worth it.
No, the NGB will not be on the chopping block in the 2020s. This program is too important for the USAF, and there’s a clear requirement for it. If anything gets cancelled, it will be the F-35, which can’t do long range strike and is not truly stealthy.
The Next Generation Bomber is needed, and fast.