America's Nuclear Bombers Are Old—and in Desperate Need of an Upgrade

A B-2 Spirit bomber refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

The air-based leg of the nuclear triad must remain a national security priority.

As previously stated, the current inventory of strategic bombers is already old and must be replaced to maintain the attributes of this leg of the nuclear triad. The Air Force plans to do this by purchasing a minimum of one hundred B-21 Raider long range strategic bombers with an average procurement cost of $564 million in 2016 dollars. The first B-21 is expected in the force by the mid-2020s. While the B-21s are coming into the force, the B-2s will need multiple upgrades to keep them viable until the late 2020s. The Air Force is also taking measures to upgrade and modernize the existing B-52Hs, which will allow them to remain in service until 2050. Such improvements would give this airframe an impressive ninety-year service life.

Along with upgrading the current bombers and building the B-21, the Air Force is developing a long-range standoff (LRSO) cruise missile to replace the ALCM and also working on life-extension programs for the B61 gravity bomb. The ALCM is twenty-five years beyond its life expectancy and it is in the middle of a third life-extension program to allow it to last until the LRSO is ready for use. The legacy B61 bombs in the inventory require a service-life extension, termed B61-12, which will improve the overall performance of the weapon while enabling the Air Force to save money by reducing the total stockpile of weapons through the consolidation of four weapons versions into one.

The most scrutinized portion of this modernization program is centered around the introduction of the LRSO missile. Some argue against this new weapon if the Air Force plans to also upgrade the B-61 gravity bomb and build the stealthy B-21 Raider. Opponents of this new missile fail to look to the future and realize the stealth capability of the B-21 could be obsolete while it is still in service. Adversary air defense systems are improving, and some suggest only 12 percent of the current bomber force is survivable from the air. The nonstealth B-52H bomber relies on the ALCM to launch at targets outside of the effective range of these systems. By choosing to not replace the ALCM with the LRSO, the government risks rendering this entire leg of the triad obsolete if adversaries learn how to overcome the stealth of the B-21 in the future. Additionally, the ALCM and replacement LRSO missile allows one bomber to launch multiple missiles at different targets. This is an advantage over the B61 gravity bomb, which has to be flown over or near the target prior to being dropped. Therefore, one bomber can cover several different targets with multiple ALCMs/LRSOs. This allows the overall size of the bomber force to be smaller, which minimizes the cost to modernize and maintain this leg of the triad.

The only future certainty is unpredictability. The United States will face challenges from state and nonstate actors that may not be on anyone’s radar in 2017. However, the United States must take steps today in order to maintain a deterrent against future aggressive actors. Such steps should include deciding how it wants to modernize its nuclear weapons and their delivery platforms. Because of the age of the current nuclear triad, the window for debate is ending. The oldest of all the triad’s platforms reside in the strategic bomber leg. The Air Force’s plans to upgrade and extend the life of the B-2, B-52H and associated weapons (ALCM and B61-12) while simultaneously building the B-21 and LRSO, are wise investments. The B-21 coupled with the LRSO provides the nation with an operationally flexible platform with the stealth capability to penetrate enemy air defense systems or deliver a standoff cruise missile if aircraft cannot penetrate those systems. These upgraded air assets and associated weapons, when paired with the capabilities of the other two legs of the nuclear triad, will provide the nation with a sound strategic deterrent for the majority of the twenty-first century.

Will Wiley is a submarine warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: A B-2 Spirit bomber refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force