Air Force Chief Calls New Bomber a “˜Must-Have Capability’

Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 18, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

NA­TION­AL HAR­BOR, MD. — The Air Force chief of staff on Tues­day said that des­pite a threat of con­tin­ued se­quest­ra­tion or oth­er deep budget cuts in com­ing years, he re­gards the ser­vice’s next nuc­le­ar-armed bomber air­craft as a ne­ces­sary ex­pendit­ure.

“The Long-Range Strike bomber pro­gram is one of our top three pro­grams,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, who has served as the top U.S. air of­ficer since Au­gust 2012. “It is a must-have cap­ab­il­ity.”

Oth­er mod­ern­iz­a­tion pri­or­it­ies for the Air Force in­clude new F-35 Joint Strike Fight­er air­craft and KC-46 aer­i­al re­fuel­ing planes.

The Air Force ex­pects to pur­chase 80 to 100 of the new bombers, be­gin­ning some­time after 2020. The ser­vice has re­ques­ted $379 mil­lion for re­search and de­vel­op­ment of the Long-Range Strike bomber in fisc­al 2014. An­nu­al ex­pendit­ures for the stealthy air­craft could reach $10 bil­lion by 2021, De­fense De­part­ment lead­ers have told Cap­it­ol Hill.

The ser­vice head’s re­marks this week fol­lowed De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel’s warn­ing last month — as he un­veiled the res­ults of his “Stra­tegic Choices and Man­age­ment Re­view” — about a stark de­term­in­a­tion to be made in the nuc­le­ar-mod­ern­iz­a­tion arena.

Hagel said that con­gres­sion­ally man­dated spend­ing cuts could force the De­fense De­part­ment to either buy a lim­ited fleet of new bombers or main­tain lar­ger quant­it­ies of aging nuc­le­ar-cap­able air­craft, with few or no mod­ern re­place­ments.

Welsh sug­ges­ted that the Air Force could not af­ford to com­prom­ise on en­sur­ing that it can con­tin­ue to hit tar­gets at long range, a cap­ab­il­ity that he called “found­a­tion­al” to his ser­vice. He re­it­er­ated the re­marks in Wed­nes­day testi­mony be­fore the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

“Glob­al Strike will con­tin­ue to be a fo­cus area,” the ser­vice chief said on Tues­day, speak­ing at an Air Force As­so­ci­ation sym­posi­um just out­side of Wash­ing­ton.

Welsh also un­der­scored the im­port­ance of main­tain­ing high stand­ards in his ser­vice’s day-to-day hand­ling of nuc­le­ar weapons, fol­low­ing a new re­port last month of failed ICBM unit in­spec­tions at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. That was the second such in­cid­ent in the past six months, fol­low­ing in­suf­fi­cient ICBM read­i­ness drill res­ults at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in March.

“The nuc­le­ar mis­sion — con­tinu­ing to strengthen the en­ter­prise — is still our No. 1 pri­or­ity in the United States Air Force and it will re­main that way,” Welsh said at the AFA event. “In our nuc­le­ar in­vent­ory, we have two-thirds of the tri­ad that provides nuc­le­ar de­terrence for the United States of Amer­ica. That’s a huge re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

The Air Force has sought to strengthen its nuc­le­ar train­ing and op­er­a­tions over roughly the past five years. The ini­ti­at­ive fol­lowed an ac­ci­dent­al 2006 ship­ment of war­head fuses to Taiwan and a mis­taken bomber trans­port of six atom­ic-armed cruise mis­siles across sev­er­al U.S. states the fol­low­ing year.

The ser­vice cre­ated its Glob­al Strike Com­mand in 2008 to over­see nuc­le­ar-armed bomber and ICBM units.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Welsh told the con­fer­ence audi­ence. “We can’t ever af­ford to get this wrong.”

Dur­ing a sep­ar­ate Tues­day ses­sion at the same for­um, Maj. Gen. Sandra Fin­an im­plied that the re­cent ICBM read­i­ness-in­spec­tion fail­ures re­flect her ser­vice’s ded­ic­a­tion to hold­ing its per­son­nel to high per­form­ance stand­ards.

“We do de­mand per­fec­tion in the nuc­le­ar en­ter­prise,” said Fin­an, who com­mands the Nuc­le­ar Weapons Cen­ter at Kirt­land Air Force Base, N.M. “To be hon­est with you, the nuc­le­ar en­ter­prise is not for every­body, be­cause you have to be de­tail-ori­ented. You have to pay at­ten­tion to everything you do, be­cause everything you do mat­ters.”

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