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No Stealth to Pentagon's Bias Against the B-2

Military: The bomber's combat debut has confounded both its critics and the Air Force.

May 09, 1999|DONALD B. RICE | Donald B. Rice is chief executive of a biotech company and a former secretary of the Air Force

Air operations against Yugoslavia are demonstrating that one of the most controversial weapons in the U.S. arsenal--the B-2 stealth bomber--is proving to be the nation's single most cost-effective attack aircraft. In essence, actual operational experience has shown that the arguments raised by the critics have been proved wrong. The opponents claimed that the B-2 could not conduct global strike missions, was not stealthy, was too expensive to risk, would prove useless as a conventional bomber, could not deliver precision-guided weapons, and (most bizarrely) would melt in the rain. So what do they say now?

Flying regular 30-hour missions from Missouri to Yugoslavia and back, the stealthy B-2s were the first manned aircraft to penetrate the dense air defenses on the opening night of strikes. B-2s have continued to fly throughout the ongoing campaign. The B-2s' much maligned stealth coatings have proved extremely durable and reliable, even after transatlantic combat flights through rain and bad weather, and the aircraft have been coming back, as the Air Force put it, "in phenomenal shape."

Moreover, the B-2s' capability to deliver 16 individual precision-guided weapons at night and in bad weather have made the stealth bomber a standout performer in the rainy and cloudy skies of Yugoslavia. Cursory data released by the Pentagon indicate that in the first nine days of the air campaign, the B-2s appear to have dropped nearly 20% of the precision ordnance while flying fewer than 3% of the attack sorties. Since B-2 sorties were increased substantially in later days along with the overall campaign, they have continued to deliver a disproportionate share of precision weapons, with no disruption for bad weather. The Pentagon bureaucracy will keep this quiet if it can lest the B-2s' performance reopen the question of buying more than 21 of them.

In general, the current crisis is proving the enormous value of the nation's long-range bomber force of B-52s, B-1Bs and B-2s, which don't depend on bases close to the combat. Last year I served on the congressionally mandated Long Range Air Power Panel to examine the adequacy of the nation's bomber force. The panel concluded that "long-range air power is an increasingly important element of U.S. military capability," and made a series of specific recommendations regarding the entire bomber force. Concerned by the lack of planning for the future of the bomber force, we also called on the Department of Defense to devise a long-term plan for its use.

Just a few weeks before the Yugoslav conflict erupted, the Air Force released its "road map." It is an extremely disappointing document. Even if the entire plan were funded, the Air Force would cut its average yearly spending on bomber upgrades by about 50%. These dramatic reductions are taking place at a time when the importance, average age and support requirements of the bomber force are increasing, along with the threat environment. The Air Force also stated that no new bomber will be needed for almost 40 years. The only conclusion one can draw is that the 1999 road map will be the last road map issued before the bomber force is sent to the boneyard.

Something is wrong here. Bomber performance and utility in the Yugoslavian conflict suggest that Pentagon priorities and the bomber road map need to be rethought. Is it really feasible to not deploy a new bomber until 2037? Is it really wise not to upgrade the B-2s' stealthiness for another 15 years? Is it really possible to satisfy the needs of the bomber force on half the money?

The 1999 bomber road map reflects the myopic focus of today's Air Force on short-range fighter aircraft. But Air Force plans for its bomber fleet are not just an internal service matter. The Air Force is the steward of the nation's long-range strike capability, and its declared intention to neglect that capability constitutes a long-term, strategic choice for the United States. The B-2's performance over Yugoslavia demonstrates that the Air Force is making the wrong choice. Resolute leadership by Congress may be needed for the Pentagon to learn the salient "air power lesson" of Kosovo.

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