Roundtable Discussion On The B-2 Bomber

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As the national debate over proposed reductions in the U.S. defense budget continues to intensify, the Center for Security Policy convened a senior-level roundtable discussion to address one of the most controversial programs for which funding is being sought by the Bush Administration: the B-2 bomber.

The roundtable took place over eight hours on 26 February 1990 and brought together a group of extraordinarily knowledgeable individuals from the government, the private sector, and the press. (A list of participants is attached.) Its purpose was to review with care the implications of the B-2 for U.S. security, particularly those attending any decision not to proceed with its procurement as planned.

The participants assessed the need for the "Stealth" bomber for the future effectiveness of the American deterrent, considering in turn the technical, operational, policy, cost and arms control aspects of the B-2 program. While no effort was made to arrive at consensus positions or formal findings, the following were among the highlights of the discussion, which was held on an unclassified and off-the-record basis:

Does the United States Still Require a Nuclear Deterrent?

One issue that received considerable attention throughout the day involved the question of whether events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had eliminated or substantially altered the requirement for an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent.


  • Given the destructive potential and the inherently high readiness of most strategic forces, in this area (at least) assessments of the Soviet threat — and decisions about the appropriate American response — must be based on realistic appraisals of the actual military capabilities of one’s adversary, not subjective judgments about his intentions.

  • Although those present generally agreed that the day-to-day Soviet conventional forces threat to Western Europe has diminished somewhat, a corresponding reduction in the Soviet Union’s strategic nuclear capabilities has not yet emerged.

  • In fact, many felt that due to Moscow’s unabated — and, in some areas, accelerating — nuclear forces modernization program, the maintenance of a robust U.S. deterrent is as important as ever. This is judged particularly true given the inherent instability now characterizing the Soviet system and the real uncertainty about the future course that will be followed by its leaders.


How Important Is a Reliable Bomber Force to Deterrence?

The discussion revealed that the continuing requirement for a robust nuclear deterrent dictates that the United States continue to field manned bombers capable of penetrating advanced air defenses.


  • Each element (or "leg") of the Strategic Triad plays a distinct and vital role in maintaining the effectiveness, and therefore the credibility, of the U.S. deterrent. Each is specifically designed to compensate for the limitations of the others. With its manned operation, recallability, large payload useable for either nuclear or conventional missions, pinpoint accuracy and long-time of flight, the bomber force offers unrivaled flexibility and opportunities for selectivity of employment not found in the other components of the Triad.

  • Unfortunately, the United States cannot confidently expect to retain such a capability much beyond the year 2000 unless it promptly fields the B-2. The age of the B-52Gs and Hs and the B-1’s uncertain performance as a penetrating bomber in the next decade are such as to make the B-2 the only candidate for this role.

  • There is nothing particularly new about the need for or the mission of the B-2. Like all such weapon systems it will be capable of performing a variety of missions — both conventional and nuclear, against fixed targets and, as appropriate, against moveable platforms (e.g., ships in port, armies in garrison, bombers on bases).

  • Rather, what distinguishes the B-2 is its unsurpassed capability to perform the mission of manned penetrating bombers well into the future.

    For example, the 10,000 mile range of the B-2 (with one refueling) allows it to execute missions worldwide from just three strategically located bases. Such a capability will likely be at a premium in a time of growing uncertainty over continued U.S. access to many overseas facilities.


  • Air launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) are an important complement to — but no substitute for — manned penetrating bombers. They more closely resemble the operational characteristics of ballistic missiles than the bomber force with which they are associated. Even ALCMs employing stealth technology are constrained by their lack of flexible, in-flight retargeting capability, their smaller ordnance payload, and the absence of a means of recalling them once they are launched.

  • As the Soviet air defense perimeter expands, stand-off platforms such as the ALCM-carrying B-52H and, in due course, the B-1 will be ever less able to reach their launch points without coming into contact with the enemy. In fact, improving Soviet air defenses will likely dictate that even stand-off cruise-missile carrying aircraft and their missiles will require considerable stealth technology in the future.

If the B-2 Is So Important, Will It Work?

An extended discussion occurred on the subject of the technical performance of the B-2. Special attention was given to charges found in recent, sharply critical reports by "60 Minutes" and the General Accounting Office.(1) Each contention concerning such issues as the uncertainties involved in "low observable" technologies, the B-2 test program, the pace of production, the susceptibility to countermeasures and the maintainability of stealthy aircraft was addressed in turn by the participants. By the end of this discussion, the participants seemed satisfied that the technical questions could be — and were being — satisfactorily answered and that the answers supported the fundamental viability of this aircraft from a military standpoint.


  • Several participants observed that, even if the B-2 had no low observable capabilities, its inherent efficiency (a function of this aircraft’s extraordinary range — with minimal requirements for in-flight refueling — and its large payload capacity) as well as its relatively low operating and maintenance costs would make it a very valuable asset for the American arsenal.

  • There is, moreover, already considerable evidence (including extensive radar cross-section analysis) that provides confidence that the B-2 will enjoy unprecedented "low observability."

  • This aspect of the B-2’s performance is being realized only partly due to the achievement of the Stealth bomber development effort. It also is the result of extensive experience with earlier generations of low observable technology (including the SR-71, the F-117 fighter, and the advanced cruise missile).

  • Two other important contributors to high confidence in the B-2 technology are the continuity of the research and development team and the high fidelity of computer simulations and a flying test bed in validating system design and performance specifications (notably, in the latter case, for the testing of the B-2’s complex avionics and on-board computer systems).

  • The participants discussed at some length the role being played by a "Red Team" — a group of experts in countermeasures and other technologies that might be used to defeat or counter the low observable qualities of the B-2. It was noted that, since the inception of the program, this Red Team had been aggressively pursuing any and all "counter-stealth" techniques; thus far, none has been found that would succeed in compromising the low observability of the B-2 bomber.

  • An important distinction was made in this regard between the task of detecting an aircraft like the B-2 and the job of tracking and vectoring missiles or interceptors to destroy it. The discussion established that while the B-2 may occasionally be detected by some radars, its stealth technology reduces the radar cross-section of the B-2 to the point where radar tracking of the requisite continuity and accuracy is impossible. Vital vectoring data for fighter aircraft and SAM sites are, consequently, not available, thus denying an adversary the ability to conduct effective defensive operations.

  • Other points raised concerning possible countermeasures included:
    • For radar systems as presently understood to detect and track a B-2, an enormous energy supply would be needed to power the search radar. Even if such a supply could be affordably produced in the USSR, no one has been able to devise a radar that could handle the power required.

    • Furthermore, the United States has yet to identify a non-radar technology capable of providing the necessary data to permit reliable interception of the B-2. Such a task is judged to be well beyond current and projected Soviet research and development capabilities.


Can the U.S. Safely Make Deep Reductions in Strategic Forces Without the B-2?

Military and civilian experts agreed that maintaining an effective manned penetrating bomber force was vital to the United States’ ability to field a viable deterrent in the environment of deep reductions in strategic arms contemplated by the emerging START Treaty.


  • The United States has long believed that it was desirable for both the U.S. and Soviet strategic forces to be substantially comprised of slow-flying manned penetrating bombers. These are widely recognized as far less conducive to a first-strike than are short-time-of-flight ballistic missiles.

  • Accordingly, the United States has sought in SALT I and II and now in the START talks to ensure that penetrating bombers were either unconstrained or limited in such a way as to encourage retention of such weapon systems over ballistic missiles.

    In the emerging START Treaty, for example, the Soviets have accepted a U.S. proposal that would do this by permitting each non-ALCM-equipped bomber to count as a single weapon — irrespective of the number of gravity bombs or short-range attack missiles it actually carries.


  • The participants discussed at some length proposals that have been surfaced recently (notably by Congressman Les Aspin) that would alter this agreed position in the START Treaty. These new proposals have been crafted with the idea of creating less of a premium on manned bombers than would be the case under the present arrangement — and, thereby, minimizing the impact on START of a cancellation of the B-2.

  • The discussion revealed that the agreed formula in START was not — contrary to some claims — the product of the U.S. government’s determination to "lock-in" the B-2. Instead, it reflected the imperatives that gave rise to the need for the B-2 bomber: the approaching obsolescence of the B-52s, the limitations of the B-1, the need to retain a flexible, multi-mission capable force and the advent of steady improvements in Soviet (and other nations’) air defenses.

    Opening up the agreed bomber counting rule in START would alleviate none of those requirements; to the contrary, addressing them would likely become more difficult as the terms of a revised treaty would likely interfere with the U.S. ability to maintain both adequate numbers of penetrating bombers and cruise missile carrying aircraft.

    It seems reasonable to conclude from the discussion that, if anything, the B-2’s importance to the United States is likely to increase under future phases of START.


Can The B-2 Be Afforded?

The most spirited debate of the day occurred in the context of assessing the affordability of the B-2 program. Some participants believed that in the wake of a declining perception of a Soviet threat and in light of increasing pressure from the deficit and domestic spending priorities, the B-2 program had little chance of getting through the congressional budget process unscathed. Others contended that this was hardly a preordained outcome and that cutting a program so vital to U.S. security strictly on financial grounds rather than with due regard to the relevant strategic considerations was irresponsible and possibly reckless.


  • In weighing the budgetary impact of the B-2, the following were identified as relevant — if often overlooked — considerations:
    • Strategic nuclear systems comprise a mere 13 per cent of the overall defense budget. The cost of the B-2 program will represent just 15 per cent of the strategic account over time — approximately the proportion of that account historically allocated to the manned bomber component of the Strategic Triad.

    • An MX-delivered warhead costs two times the acquisition cost of a warhead delivered by the B-2, yet offers none of the flexibility inherent in the bomber force.

    • Approximately $25 billion in "sunk costs" associated with the B-2 development program are really relevant to the current debate over B-2 costs only insofar as they represent funds that would — to a considerable degree — be wasted if the United States now chooses to forego production and deployment of the B-2 force.

    • A slow-down of or hiatus in the B-2 production schedule (as recommended by the GAO) would, at a minimum, greatly increase unit costs. In all probability, doing so would make the program completely unaffordable; if not, it would likely become unachievable as a practical matter due to the devastating impact these actions would have on contractor (and subcontractor) workforces and on existing fixed-price contracts.

    • Moreover, complete cancellation of the program would cost the taxpayer huge sums in termination costs provided for as part of the fixed price contracts that would have to be breached.

    • The B-2 is a cheaper aircraft to own and operate than the aircraft it replaces because of its low maintenance requirements and small (i.e., two-man) crew size.

    • A number of participants noted that much of the difficulty experienced in accommodating the large costs associated with a program like the B-2 is attributable to the absence of long-term financial guidance from the Congress. This point was repeatedly made in response to criticisms that the Air Force and the Defense Department had not worked out a strategy for funding the B-2 in an era of diminishing defense spending.

    • A further consideration for many of the discussants in assessing the value of the investment in the B-2 was the fact that it would not only render worthless the air defense system in which the USSR has invested hundreds of billions of dollars over the years; should the Soviets attempt to counter it, they would have to divert vast sums that would otherwise likely be dedicated to offensive systems.




The Westin Hotel

26 February 1990

Bruce Auster, Staff Writer, U.S. News & World Report

Fred Barnes, Columnist, The New Republic

Tony Battista, Former Professional Staff Member, House Armed Services Committee

Hank Cooper, Former Chief U.S. Negotiator, Defense and Space Talks

Bob Costello, Former Under Secretary of Defense, Research & Engineering

MG Steve Croker, Headquarters, USAF

Ralph Crosby, Northrop Corporation

BG William Davitte, Headquarters, USAF

Bill Delaney, M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory

Col. Joe DeSutter, Military Assistant to the Vice President

Norm Dicks, Member of Congress

Stan Ebner, Northrop Corporation

Frank Gaffney, Director, Center for Security Policy

Pat Glynn, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

Col. John Gordon, National Security Council

Slade Gorton, United States Senator

Don Hicks, Former Under Secretary of Defense, Research & Engineering

Fred Ikle, Former Under Secretary of Defense, Policy

Jay Keyworth, Former Science Advisor to the President

Larry Korb, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Logistics

Sven Kraemer, Deputy Director, Center for Security Policy

Frank Kramer, Partner, Shea and Gardner; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force

Bob Joseph, Commissioner-designate, Standing Consultative Commission

Ron Lehman, Director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency

Carnes Lord, National Security Advisor to the Vice President

Molly Moore, Staff Writer, Washington Post

Gen. Randy Randolph, Commander, Air Force Systems Command

Jim Roche, Northrop Corporation

Larry Skantze, Former Commander, Air Force Systems Command

Walt Slocombe, Partner, Caplin and Drysdale; former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense

Bernie Trainor, Reporter, New York Times

Gen. Larry Welch, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense, Policy

1. Representatives of "60 Minutes" and the General Accounting Office were invited to participate in the roundtable but declined to do so.


Center for Security Policy

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