Congress Told of Possible Gap in Air Force’s Nuclear Strike Capability

A nuclear-capable B-2 Spirit from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., on Sunday taxis down the runway at RAF Fairford, England. A new congressional report warns of the potential for a "shortfall" in the Air Force's ability to mount long-range attacks with its bomber fleet.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
June 9, 2014, 10:46 a.m.

A new con­gres­sion­al re­port high­lights the po­ten­tial for a short­fall to emerge in the Air Force’s abil­ity to mount long-range nuc­le­ar bomber at­tacks.

A Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port pub­lished on­line on Sat­urday high­lights a num­ber of factors that could res­ult in a gap in the coun­try’s abil­ity to con­duct long-range nuc­le­ar strikes by air, among them for­eign na­tions’ de­vel­op­ment of soph­ist­ic­ated anti-ac­cess and area-deni­al cap­ab­il­it­ies and re­duc­tions in de­fense spend­ing im­posed by the 2011 Budget Con­trol Act.

The Pentagon is plan­ning on build­ing a new long-range stealth bomber, but the first units are not ex­pec­ted to be­come avail­able un­til the mid-2020s. In the mean­time, the abil­ity of the Air Force’s cur­rent fleet of nuc­le­ar-cap­able bombers “to get close enough to tar­gets to em­ploy weapons will likely con­tin­ue to de­teri­or­ate” as po­ten­tial ad­versar­ies ac­quire more ad­vanced air de­fenses, ac­cord­ing to the re­port by Con­gress’ in­tern­al think-tank.

“Already, against today’s toughest air de­fenses, the B-52 and B-1 are largely reg­u­lated to stan­doff roles; only the B-2 is ex­pec­ted to get through,” states the re­port by ana­lyst Mi­chael Miller. “In the years to come, the Air Force an­ti­cip­ates the B-2’s abil­ity to pen­et­rate will also de­cline, even though the Air Force plans to up­grade all three bombers with new sys­tems and weapons.”

Not much is pub­licly known about the en­vi­sioned char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the next-gen­er­a­tion bomber, in­clud­ing what cap­ab­il­it­ies it will be giv­en to de­feat op­pon­ents’ anti-ac­cess weaponry. The Air Force wants to buy between 80 and 100 new bombers.

Much has bee writ­ten in re­cent months and years about the po­ten­tial for China’s grow­ing ar­sen­al of cruise and bal­list­ic mis­siles to in­hib­it the abil­ity of the U.S. mil­it­ary to pro­ject nav­al power in the Asia-Pa­cific.

There are ap­prox­im­ately 157 long-range B-52s, B-1s and B-2s in the U.S. ar­sen­al. The De­fense De­part­ment plans to main­tain a bomber fleet of roughly 156 air­craft through at least 2022, the re­port notes. However, the nearly $500 bil­lion in con­gres­sion­ally im­posed de­fense cuts that are to be im­ple­men­ted over the next dec­ade, as well as the po­ten­tial for fur­ther mil­it­ary cut­backs, could im­pact the size of the Air Force’s leg­acy dual-cap­able fleet, ac­cord­ing to Miller.

The re­duced mil­it­ary budget comes as Pentagon spend­ing on its nuc­le­ar bombers is pro­jec­ted to double by fisc­al 2020 to over $9 bil­lion an­nu­ally, thanks to the cost of ac­quir­ing the new long-range bomber and in­stalling up­grades to the B-52, B-1 and B-2 at the same time. Cur­rent ser­vice mod­ern­iz­a­tion plans are de­signed to keep the former two planes “op­er­a­tion­al” through 2040, and the B-2 de­ploy­able through 2058.

The CRS re­port flags for Con­gress’ over­sight at­ten­tion the ques­tion of wheth­er to con­tin­ue to pay for “sus­tain­ment and mod­ern­iz­a­tion ef­forts” for leg­acy bombers in the face of po­ten­tial ad­versar­ies’ grow­ing air de­fense cap­ab­il­it­ies, or to al­tern­at­ively al­low the bombers to “be­come in­creas­ingly ir­rel­ev­ant.”

“In large part, de­cisions by Con­gress will de­term­ine just how much longer the B-52, B-1 and B-2 will re­main rel­ev­ant, and ul­ti­mately, will likely de­term­ine the fu­ture of the na­tion’s long-range strike cap­ab­il­it­ies,” the doc­u­ment reads.

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