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Bombers Away! (Oops: And Back Again…)

The Air Force’s love affair with its tarnished silver bullet
The Air Force has announced it wants to retire its B-2 (upper left) and B-1 (lower center) bombers early to keep its ancient B-52s (right) flying and ensure sufficient funds for its new B-21 bomber. (Photo: USAF / Curt Beach)

Remote controls for TV sets were a rarity back in the 1950s, when the B-52 bomber first flew. But now, the thought of getting out of your chair, walking to the TV to change channels or crank up the volume, and returning to your chair to resume watching is ludicrous. Technology has made all that obsolete.

But the same logic doesn’t apply to Air Force bombers. Since TV remotes shifted from wires and ultrasonic tones in the late 1970s to the far more reliable infrared remotes we know and love today, the Air Force has launched three ocean-spanning bomb-droppers: the B-1 (operational since 1986), the B-2 (since 1997) and the B-21 (slated to become operational by 2030). Even more bizarrely, the Air Force announced Feb. 12 that it plans to retire its B-1 and B-2 fleets a decade or so ahead of schedule to assure it has enough cash on hand to buy B-21s.

This bizarre bomber juggling reflects the downside of the U.S. military’s technological lust.

What is going on here? Reporters of a certain age recall the Air Force’s insistence that the B-1 and B-2 were wonder weapons critical to national security when they were under development. Now it wants to retire them and keep huge, lumbering B-52s twice their age?

President Carter killed the B-1 to ramp up production of the B-2, a decision President Reagan reversed by resurrecting the B-1 and buying the B-2, to boot. Taxpayers should, ahem, pay attention to the B-2’s fate: the Air Force wanted 132, but ended up with only 20. That drove the cost of each plane to more than $2 billion. Today, the Air Force wants at least 100 B-21s and it’s peddling an artificially low $550 million price tag per plane to try to entice buyers. Floor mats not included.

This artist’s rendering of the Northrop Grumman bat-winged B-21 bomber, still under development, looks a lot like its predecessor, the B-2, also built by Northrop Grumman. (Source: USAF graphic)

The Air Force is seeking $2.3 billion in 2019 to continue development of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, up from $2 billion this year. But, as was the case during the B-2’s development, the Pentagon has steadfastly declined to detail how that money will be spent. “It's nothing different than what we were already doing,” Air Force Maj. Gen. John Fletcher, the service’s top bean-counter, vaguely said as he unveiled his service’s $170 billion budget request for 2019. “It's just advancing further down that path.” Offering more details, Air Force officials explain, could offer potential foes clues about the B-21’s capabilities and allow them to begin developing counter-measures.


It’s amazing that the Air Force wants to retire its super-duper bombers so it can buy an even superer-duperer bomber, while still keeping Fred Flintstone’s bomber airborne. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The B-52 was designed and built in an earlier era, when every cubic inch of its innards wasn’t crammed with electronics and a high-maintenance sensitive skin. It was basically an eight-engine flying jalopy with a beefy fuselage and room for growth, including new electronics and weapons.

The more complicated the plane, the less ready it is to fly. About 60 percent of the B-52 fleet has been fully ready to fly at any one time over the past five years, John Tirpak recently reported in Air Force Magazine. And while 60 percent is a D- in most schools, it sure beats the Fs earned by the B-1 (40 percent) and B-2 (35 percent).

The Air Force optimized both the B-1 and B-2 to outfox a Soviet Union that ceased to exist as they took off. The B-1’s swing-wing mechanics allowed it to fly low and fast into Soviet airspace, while the B-2’s radar-eluding design meant it could strike targets deep inside the Soviet Union with relative impunity. But the B-1’s complex wing assembly proved dangerous and the B-2’s stealth coating is costly to maintain.

This bizarre bomber juggling reflects the downside of the U.S. military’s technological lust. The average age of the 76 B-52 Stratofortresses—the simplest U.S. bomber—is 54.8 years, and costs about $70,000 an hour to fly. The Air Force’s 62 B-1 Lancers average 29.1 years and cost about the same to operate. The 20 B-2 Spirits average 22.2 years old, and cost about double the other bombers’ cost per flight hour. Under the Air Force’s new bomber plan, its B-52s will have been flying for 90 years by the time they earn their well-deserved retirement sometime after 2050.

DOD contract announcement
While last built in the 1960s, a stream of Pentagon contracts keeps the B-52s flying. (Source: DoD contract announcements)

In aviation’s earlier days, bombers planely were the way to go, when there was no other option to try to destroy things or kill foes from the sky. But that has all changed in recent decades, beginning with costly precision-guided munitions, followed by far-cheaper GPS-guided bombs. Long-range missiles and drones have further shrunk bombers’ roles in combat. Most critically, given the nation’s concern for the safety of its troops, what is the purpose of dispatching them on such dangerous missions?

That’s especially true given U.S. bombers’ checkered past. U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland praised the B-52 in his memoir as “the most lethal weapon employed in South Vietnam,” although it had no impact on the war’s outcome. Lousy strategy, the Pentagon said after losing that war. In 1999, a B-2 bomber flew to Belgrade seeking to destroy a Serbian military headquarters, but destroyed the Chinese embassy instead, killing three. Lousy maps, the Pentagon said. In 2003, the U.S. military dispatched a B-1 bomber in the opening days of the Iraq war to obliterate a Baghdad intelligence hangout where Saddam Hussein was. He wasn’t. Lousy intelligence, the Pentagon said. In 2011, when it came time to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, President Obama ruled out trying to kill him with bombs dropped from a pair of B-2s. Lousy risk, he concluded, fearing that incinerating Osama would also erase any evidence that he had been killed. So he ordered Navy SEALs to fly into Pakistan and bring his body out, dead or alive.

Historically, bomber advocates have never lacked for faith. “Air power can attack the vital centers of the opposing country directly, completely destroying and paralyzing them,” Army Gen. Billy Mitchell, regarded as a father of the U.S. Air Force, declared even before the service was born in 1947.

“The atomic bomb and the long-range bomber will permit the delivery of devastating blows to the heart of the enemy without the necessity for the conquest of intermediate bases,” an Air Force report said that same year. “Assuming a plentiful supply of atomic bombs…it would be feasible to risk an all-out atomic attack at the beginning of a war in an effort to stun the enemy into submission.” (While the B-52s and B-2s carry nuclear weapons, B-1s were modified between 2007 and 2011, under an arms-control pact with Moscow, making them incapable of launching atomic weapons.)

The bomber force reached its apogee when Gen. Curtis LeMay ran the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957, amid the chilliest days of the Cold War. By the early 1960s, more than half of the Air Force’s senior commanders had come from SAC’s ranks. But SAC faded into history in 1992, a year after the Soviet Union did. A bombardier last ran the Air Force in 1982; fighter pilots have pretty much run the show ever since. Bombers have become just another warplane. It’s akin to an Air Force appendix, a vestigial organ that once played a key role, but one whose utility has been eclipsed by progress.

Yet not to current true believers. “Today’s modern stealth bombers, including the B-21, are one of the few tools that can be counted on to take the fight to exactly where it matters, inside the most heavily contested airspace,” Air Force Lieut. Col. James Price, a bomber pilot, wrote last summer. “The traditional range, payload and lethality now combined with onboard intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance sensors, precision-strike weapons and stealth designs position the American heavy bomber at the forefront of future warfare.”

And the Pentagon is preparing for that future. On Feb. 8, the Air Force awarded Boeing a $21 million contract for an unspecified number of 30,000-pound GBU-57s. Also known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, it is the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the Pentagon arsenal. It can only be dropped from a B-2 bomber, which is capable of carrying two of them. Bomber boosters say it is designed for use against targets burrowed into mountains, like weapons-development sites and command-and-control bunkers in Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. Air Force dropped the equivalent of more than a half-million Massive Ordnance Penetrators during the Vietnam War.