On 8 June 1994, the Center for Security Policy convened a day-long "Roundtable Discussion" on the policy implications of limitations on U.S. power-projection capabilities and the role long-range manned bombers could — and should — play in future American defense strategies. Among the distinguished participants in this Roundtable meeting were former Secretaries of Defense James Schlesinger and Caspar Weinberger; the then- Commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. John Loh; a number of other past and present senior U.S. government officials and military personnel and top journalists.
While no effort was made to define or formally approve consensus positions or recommendations, the summary of the proceedings offered powerful arguments for fielding a large and flexible manned bomber force for the indefinite future, with a fleet of more than 20 B-2 aircraft as its backbone. This summary was released on 24 June 1994, in time to inform congressional deliberations about whether to preserve industrial base options for the production of additional Stealth bombers. Shortly thereafter, first the Senate and ultimately the full Congress voted to ensure that such options were preserved.
A little over a year later, Congress is in the throes of renewed B-2 debate. This time, the issue is whether to exercise the option it created in 1994 by building a second increment of 20 B-2 aircraft. In the intervening period, the Clinton Administration — which remains adamantly opposed to such a step — commissioned two studies by defense contractors intended to undercut the case for additional procurement of B-2 bombers. The first, prepared by the Institute for Defense Analysis, concluded that the United States did not have a military requirement for more stealth bombers. The second was performed by TASC, Inc. and asserted that the bomber industrial base could be preserved without building additional B-2s. In addition, a third study was produced for Congress by the General Accounting Office. The GAO reported finding serious technical problems with the testing and production of the stealth bomber.
In light of the high stakes associated with an upcoming vote on the B-2 in the House of Representatives, the Center for Security Policy believed it would be useful to revisit the issues addressed in the first High-Level Roundtable Discussion on the Manned Bomber Force and to examine critically the findings of these studies. (The vote is expected to occur tomorrow on an amendment offered by Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich and the National Security Committee’s ranking minority member, Rep. Ron Dellums.) Some thirty individuals participated in this half-day program, including several former senior officials like Amb. Paul Wolfowitz, who had participated in the first Roundtable on this subject, as well as Rep. Norm Dicks, a ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and Ronald Lehman, former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
The following briefly describe the key points that emerged in the course of this Roundtable. Once again, these points represent highlights of the discussion among — rather than necessarily a consensus position of — the experts who participated.
The Continued Need for U.S. Power Projection in the Post Cold War Strategic Environment — and the Role of Manned Bombers in Meeting That Need
The lead discussants for the opening session of the day’s program were Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Paul Wolfowitz, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Highlights of this session included the following:
- One of the defining characteristics of the post-Cold War strategic environment is a great deal of uncertainty about threats. There is a sense that we do in fact have enemies, but it is hard to identify who those enemies will be in the future. This uncertainty comes at a time when the United States is closing a significant number of its overseas bases, either because foreign countries do not want the U.S. there anymore — as in the case of the Philippines — or because the U.S. no longer wants to maintain the kind of investment that foreign bases require, both in infrastructure and in foreign assistance programs necessary to preserve these overseas bases.
- As a result, it is unlikely that the United States will have fourteen days of actionable warning of a crisis — a key assumption in the study performed by the Institute for Defense Analysis for Under Secretary of Defense Paul Kaminski. That was not the case with World War II, with Korea or with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; there is no basis for assuming it will be the case in the future.
- Put simply, present and foreseeable international conditions argue very strongly for a significant force of bombers equipped with the unique capabilities of the B-2.
- Although the current trend in U.S. policy-making circles is moving away from unilateral international action, in the future it will remain important to have the ability to act unilaterally in a crisis — or when retaliating against the increasing phenomenon of state- sponsored terrorism. Indeed, experience has shown that if the U.S. has options enabling it to proceed unilaterally, it will have a much greater chance of bringing other states along with it. The B-2, with its intercontinental range, stealth and large payload capacity, gives the U.S. considerable ability to act unilaterally and to forge coalitions.
- One reason for the United States’ great success in the Persian Gulf War was the willingness of Saudi Arabia to allow American forces to use bases on its soil. Persuading Saudi Arabia to permit such a forward deployment for the purpose of fighting another Arab state was a very difficult task. In the event of future conflicts, it is by no means guaranteed that littoral states will afford the same access. Should the option of forward-deploying U.S. air and other assets be precluded, the value of intercontinental-range manned bombers like the B-2 rises dramatically.
- This is a particular concern in the Western Pacific where tomorrow’s most formidable powers are emerging. The Pacific rim is an enormous region with very few U.S. bases. Procuring sufficient numbers of B-2s to permit a deployment on Guam would allow considerable firepower to be rapidly brought to bear throughout the area even in the absence of local basing facilities..
- The capability to strike at very long range with very great accuracy using conventional weapons has been a goal of strategic air power since the invention of the airplane. The B-2 actually achieves that goal. Such a capability tips the military equation in favor of the U.S. It is difficult to imagine any other nation on earth which, if equipped with such a system, would stop producing it.
- In order to capitalize fully on the advantages of the B-2, it will be necessary to procure more than the twenty currently on order for the Air Force. Congress forced the Bush Administration to accept a limit of twenty — a number that made no sense relative to any other number than zero. Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell had recommended to Secretary of Defense Cheney that the Bush Administration commit to buying at least 50 stealth bombers. On the other hand, with roughly 60 B-2s, the U.S. could station 20 at three bases around the world (Guam, Whiteman AFB and Diego Garcia) and be able to reach any target anywhere on the planet within hours.
The Importance of Stealth and Intercontinental Capabilities to the U.S. Manned Bomber Force of the Future
The Roundtable then considered the contribution made to the power-projection capabilities of the U.S. manned bomber force by the B-2’s stealth technology and its ability to deliver large payloads over intercontinental distances. The lead discussant was Col. John J. Kohout III (USAF, Ret.), former Director for Plans and Director of Programs, Headquarters, Strategic Air Command. The following were among highlights of this part of the discussion:
- The importance of the B-2 is evident when its stealth and long range are put into a strategic-political context. First, America is coming home from its overseas bases. Second, the American people are becoming increasingly sensitive to the possibility of U.S. casualties. Third, the one thing about America’s next conflict that seems assured is that it will be a surprise.
- A truly stealthy long-range bomber with a large and flexible payload capacity such as the B-2 gives the U.S. five advantages in a conflict: First, it allows for early effectiveness against defenses. Second, it allows for a wide range of attack tactics. Non-stealthy aircraft must fly very fast and very low to avoid enemy radar; the B-2 need not do so. Third, it allows for reliable destruction of defended targets. Fourth, it creates the potential for persistence in the target area. An aircraft that is very difficult to shoot down can linger in a particular area, making sure that all valuable targets are destroyed. Finally, since stealth aircraft are such difficult targets, they will have a very low attrition rate over the course of a prolonged conventional bombing campaign.
- Stealth does not make an aircraft completely invulnerable to enemy forces. But, a stealthy aircraft presents a significant strategic advantage over non-stealthy aircraft. The submarine is a stealthy vehicle in another environment. Even though submarines can be located and sunk, they still provide an immeasurable advantage to navies which possess them.
- The B-2 stealth bomber, although expensive, can nonetheless save money. The U.S. spent $10 billion moving its forces to the Persian Gulf region after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The execution of the war cost another $60 billion. A sufficient force of B-2s likely could have stopped Saddam’s march into Kuwait — and obviated the need for the $70 billion war.
The B-2 Production Line and the Preservation of a Viable Bomber Industrial Base
The discussion then turned to the topic of the impact on bomber industrial capabilities if the B-2 production line is shut down after 20 aircraft are manufactured. At specific issue were the conclusions of the TASC study which said that closing the B-2 line would have little consequence for the Nation’s future ability to produce a stealthy long-range bomber. The lead discussant was Joe Conway, a Research Associate at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and co-author of Long-Range Bombers and the Role of Airpower in the New Century. Highlights of this section of the Roundtable Discussion included the following:
- By the year 2005, the fleet of B-52 bombers will be about a half a century old; current Pentagon force plans nonetheless project a heavy reliance on these assets far into the future. Few would seriously argue for using World War II vintage aircraft to fight Desert Storm, yet opponents of continuing B-2 production routinely contend that the B-52s will remain viable for many years to come.
- As a practical matter though, at some point in the first decade or so of the next century, the United States is going to have to replace its B-52, and perhaps its B-1 bombers. There are, consequently, three compelling reasons not to shut down the B-2 industrial base — the Nation’s only active production line for long-range manned bombers:
- The first reason is time: It took about a decade to develop the B-2. It will take no less, and possibly considerably longer, to create a new production line from scratch.
- Second, building large, complex aircraft like bombers — particularly those featuring sophisticated low observable technology — from a cold and dissipated industrial base invites significant, costly operational problems with the finished planes.
- Finally, it is more cost-effective in the long run to keep the B-2 industrial base open. The U.S. has already spent $44 billion on the B-2. $24 billion was for start-up costs, an investment that stands to be largely wasted if that production line is closed and a new one subsequently started up. When the U.S. is obliged to produce a long-range bomber again in the future, the cost of restarting the production line may be on the order of $30 billion — a sum that will not pay for a single new plane but could buy a great many B-2s.
- What is more, the unit costs of producing a new bomber are sure to be higher than those associated with the B-2. For example, when the B-1A program was restarted to produce the B-1B, the per unit cost of the B-1B was three-times higher than the B-1A. Importantly, the B-1B was a modification (albeit a significant one) of the A-model and a gap of just 18 months occurred in the production line. A wholly new bomber using an industrial base that has been out of the bomber production business for far longer would likely prove still more expensive per unit than the B-2.
- Since the high cost of the B-2 is often cited by its opponents as grounds for terminating this program, it seems improbable that they will be more supportive of a future "B-3" that is still more expensive.
- In short, the arguments put forward in the TASC study contending that the B-2 line can be closed without significant adverse impact on the Nation’s future ability to produce bombers do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny in a world in which the United States must maintain a large and flexible bomber force and do so within severe budgetary constraints.
The Facts Concerning Alleged Deficiencies in the B-2 Program Contained in a General Accounting Office Study
The final topic of discussion was an examination of the charges of poor performance and manufacturing problems leveled against the B-2 program by a General Accounting Office (GAO) study. The Center’s director, Frank Gaffney, introduced the GAO’s findings and invited comment from the Air Force personnel, industry representatives and other participants. Highlights of the discussion that ensued included the following points:
- The Air Force is actually quite happy with the progress of the B-2 program. It was disturbed by press reports occasioned by the leak of a draft version of the GAO report to the effect that the B-2 is not stealthy, has a defective radar system, is plagued with design flaws and is failing a host of basic tests. In fact, the Pentagon was so upset by these mischaracterizations of the B-2 program that Under Secretary of Defense Paul Kaminski felt compelled to issue a rebuttal of significant portions of the report.
- Most of the so-called problems with the B-2 are either so minor as to be operationally insignificant, or are expected occurrences at this stage of a complex weapon system’s development and production.
- The B-2 is being produced in stages called "Blocks." Each Block has a different set of abilities, with Block 10 aircraft having less capability and Block 30 aircraft being fully operational B-2 stealth bombers. The aircraft currently being tested are Block 10 aircraft — they are not designed to have the full Block 30 capabilities until subsequent retrofits are completed. Importantly, many of the problems cited in the GAO study arise from the inappropriate evaluation of Block 10 aircraft against Block 30 standards they are not expected to be meeting at this point.
- The B-2 program is on schedule. Block 30 testing is scheduled — in fact, has been scheduled for two years — to be completed in the summer of 1997. The program completed 100 percent of its milestones for Block 10 testing and the Block 10 is deployed today.
- Much has been made of the B-2’s terrain-following/terrain avoidance radar’s supposed inability to "differentiate a mountain from a raincloud." This stems from the fact that the radar in the Block 10 aircraft is directing the plane to avoid areas of heavy rains as if they were physical obstacles. This, however, is completely normal in the early stages of development of a highly sophisticated radar/avionics system. The radar is being tested in its most sensitive mode to ensure that it works properly in combat. The fact that the plane moves to avoid hitting a raincloud is an indication that its radar is working — not that it is malfunctioning.
- Aerodynamically, the B-2 has been thoroughly tested and it is a very sound design. The personnel that work with the B-2 claim that it is a relatively easy aircraft to maintain and that in flight it is performing well ahead of its expectations.
- The main purpose for a testing phase of any new weapons system is to iron out bugs — it is supposed to find opportunities for product improvement. If there are minor problems, then those problems should be — and are being — corrected. Such minor problems should not be grounds for the premature termination of a vital program.
- In other words, the facts do not support interpretations of the GAO’s findings that have been widely disseminated in the press as indicative of fatal technical and testing flaws in the B-2 program. It appears, rather, that the B-2 — like many other weapon systems (notably, the F-117 stealth fighter, the M-1 tank and the Apache attack helicopter) that have been the subjects of critical GAO evaluations — will prove to be an extremely valuable instrument for the U.S. military to employ on behalf of the Nation’s security.
Like the Center for Security Policy’s first Roundtable on the Future of the Manned Bomber Force, this session suggested an informal consensus: The United States cannot afford to effect the draconian reductions in long-range bomber capabilities envisioned by the Clinton defense plan. These forces are, if anything, likely to be more important in the future due to emerging world conditions and the contraction of American military forces to bases in the continental U.S. The discussion also appeared to confirm that the most cost- effective means of assuring the future viability of the manned bomber force would be through continued production of the B-2.
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