In the late 1950s, the U.S. long-range bomber force consisted of 1,854 aircraft, none of them more than seven years old. Today, the force counts only 359 planes, 262 of them B-52s, the last of which rolled off the assembly line 27 years ago. At some point around the year 2000, as the last B-52s are retired, the force could shrink to fewer than 100 aircraft.
A decline in the size of the bomber force over the last 30 years was inevitable. The emergence of the intercontinental ballistic missile in the late 1950s and early '60s offered a relatively cheap and, in many respects, more efficient alternative to the manned bomber as a means of delivering strategic nuclear strikes. The almost exponential growth in the cost of building bombers capable of penetrating ever more sophisticated air defenses also made the planes unaffordable in large numbers. Compare, for example, the $800,000 price tag of the B-29, by far the most expensive and technologically advanced bomber of World War II, to the estimated $572-million cost of the Air Force's new B-2 stealth bomber.
Cost growth has reinforced the oft-heard, albeit utterly mistaken, view that the long-range manned bomber has become as obsolete as horse cavalry.
Long-range bombers remain an indispensable component of U.S. security. They add redundancy to the strategic deterrent, and the very existence of a U.S. long-range bomber force vastly complicates Soviet strategic planning. Bombers also contribute significantly to strategic stability, since their relatively slow speed precludes their employment in a first-strike role. Bombers, unlike ICBMs, are also recallable and reusable, and they can deliver large amounts of all kinds of munitions, conventional as well as nuclear.
The importance of this last attribute has all too often been ignored. Since Nagasaki, U.S. long-range bombers have been employed in combat only in non-nuclear conflicts in the Third World (the Korean and Vietnam wars). And conventional strategic bombardment requirements are likely to grow in the future. On the one hand are mounting threats to U.S. security interests in the Third World. On the other is the continuing contraction in the U.S. overseas basing network, which places a premium on intercontinental range over tactical air power. (The Air Force played no role in U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf in 1987-1988 because the political precondition for its participation--access to bases ashore in the region--was absent.)
Concern over the decline in the size of the U.S. long-range bomber force is therefore legitimate. The United States needs a modern bomber force not only larger than the one now planned (100 B-1Bs and 132 B-2s), but also flexible enough to handle both strategic nuclear as well as conventional contingencies. Unfortunately, it has--and will have--neither, unless present plans are changed.
The principal obstacle to the kind of bomber force that is needed is, ironically, the B-2 itself. Even in the absence of an unprecedented defense budgetary crisis, the B-2 program's cost alone ($75 billion and climbing) would severely limit the size of the future force. Indeed, the program's cost overruns to date have convinced many that it will fall significantly short of its declared goal of 132 planes.
Already twice as expensive as the B-1B, the B-2 is so specialized for its declared mission--namely, to evade Soviet radar detection and seek out and destroy mobile ICBMs and other moving targets deep inside Soviet territory after an initial U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear-missile exchange--as to make it a very poor candidate for non-nuclear contingencies not involving the Soviet Union. The B-2 is simply too expensive and inflexible to berisked in other than all-out nuclear war.
Overshadowing issues of affordability and strategic utility is whether the plane will perform to expectations. The technological difficulties that have attended the B-1B program (similar in scope to those that initially plagued the B-29) pale in comparison to the ones that hover ominously over the B-2. Technologically, the B-2 is vastly more exotic than the B-1B, which was launched on a solid foundation of almost 2,000 hours of flight-testing experience afforded by the previously canceled B-1A program. Worse still, the B-2 is being developed, tested and produced concurrently rather than sequentially. This concurrency approach would risk program failure for a weapon system far less complex; it begs for disaster in the case of the B-2, which has already suffered slippages in schedule due to technological difficulties.