One of the fundamental elements of American military power that gives our national defense strategy a truly global reach is our ability to project power at long-distances. Along with aircraft carriers, our long-range bomber fleet provides one of the Nation's premier power-projection capabilities. Whether nuclear-capable B-52s performing strategic deterrence during the long years of the Cold War, B-1s dropping munitions over Baghdad in the first hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom, or stealthy B-2s flying exercises over the Korean Peninsula to signal American resolve during a crisis, our Air Force bomber fleet serves as one of the most flexible and lethal tools in the United States' kit.
But as the second decade of the twenty-first century unfolds, the United States has allowed its long-range strike advantage to atrophy. The resulting capability gap is the result of two trends. First, while seeking a "peace dividend" in the aftermath of the Cold War, the Defense Department effectively ceased investing in new long-range strike capabilities. DoD compounded the problem by making a conscious decision to invest more heavily in short-range fighters at the expense of developing new long-range strike systems, a decision that is not without its risks. Second, the demands of fighting irregular wars over the past decade left few resources available for new, high-end bomber investments.
The atrophy of the Air Force's bomber fleet mirrors the service's overall decline to the smallest number of aircraft in its history. The bombers that remain today are rapidly aging, with many now considerably older than the crews who man them. The average age of a B-52 is fifty-two years, our B-1s average twenty-eight years, and our B-2s twenty years. Under current Air Force plans, some B-52s will receive modernization packages to extend their service lives past 2040 and modernized B-2s are scheduled to remain in service until 2058. While the twenty B-2s in our inventory will continue to make vital contributions to the Air Force's long-range strike mission in contested environments, there is clearly a need for new aircraft with new capabilities in the service's inventory to meet the demands of the coming decades.
Indeed, a series of developments in recent years have made long-range strike capabilities even more critical.
* The military competitors the U.S. could face in the future—including both Iran and the People's Republic of China (PRC)—enjoy a level of geographic strategic depth that the U.S. has not had to contend with since the end of the Cold War. Countering this challenge demands not just more range but also more persistence for manned aircraft to remain in enemy airspace to find and attack targets.
* In the future, the U.S. will have to contend with a more mobile set of targets (including ballistic missile launchers) as well as hardened and/or deeply buried facilities. This is a challenge that cannot be addressed sufficiently with standoff weapons alone and will require stealthy, long-range strike platforms.
* For diplomatic, economic, and strategic reasons, military planners cannot assume regional bases will be available for aerial refueling tankers and short-range fighters to operate from in the future. Indeed, we have encountered such limiting factors in previous operations. And should the U.S. gain access, the PRC and Iran are developing or acquiring a range of ballistic missiles, land-based aircraft, land-attack cruise missiles, and, in the case of Iran, terrorist proxy groups they can employ to target U.S. assets and regional facilities.
* Finally, the PRC and Iran have developed, or are trying to acquire, air-defense systems that, along with the strategic depth these countries enjoy, could render it prohibitive for nonstealthy aircraft and standoff weapons to penetrate their airspace and loiter over the target area. Holding mobile, hardened or deeply buried targets at risk inside sophisticated air-defense networks, therefore, will require long-range strike platforms with all-aspect, broadband low-observable characteristics.
The Air Force's answer to this set of strategic dilemmas is the Long Range Strike-Bomber, or LRS-B, which is intended to serve as the principal conventional and nuclear-capable bomber for the remainder of the century. This platform aims to fulfill the Air Force's need for a long-range strike aircraft with the speed, stealth, range and payload capacity needed to operate in antiaccess/area denial environments. Successfully integrating LRS-B into the Air Force inventory will be critical for deterring aggression and supporting allies in places like the Western Pacific and Middle East.
Unfortunately, the Air Force is still years away from operationally fielding the LRS-B. Currently, the service doesn't expect to begin flight-testing until the mid-2020s and full operational employment for some time thereafter. The service is also planning for a total of between eighty and one hundred LRS-Bs, considerably less than the nearly 160 bombers currently in service. While some modernization of existing bombers can help bridge the gap, the United States is poised to face a significant shortfall in long-range strike capabilities for the next two decades, making it all the more critical to keep this program on track.
The Navy also has an opportunity to develop a next-generation platform that could greatly extend the offensive power of its carrier air wings. The Navy is well along in proving the feasibility of this concept in the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program. To be effective in emerging threat environments in the Western Pacific and other regions, a future carrier-based unmanned combat air system must be stealthy, capable of automated aerial refueling, and have integrated surveillance and strike functionality. In contrast, developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily another flying sensor would be a missed opportunity.
Going forward, it is imperative that Congress clearly articulate to the Department of Defense its support for robust long-range strike capabilities. There is little time to waste in bringing the Air Force's bomber force and the Navy's carrier air wings into the twenty-first century to preserve our nation's long-range strike advantage.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) is Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) is a former Air Force B-1 bomber pilot.