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The troubling state of the Air Force’s long-range bomber fleet

The latest installment of the Republican presidential debate last week saw an unlikely object become the scorn of GOP attacks: the B-52 strategic bomber.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush began the assault, lamenting the U.S. military has “a lack of readiness that is quite scary. We have planes that…Harry Truman inaugurated, the B-52.” Followed soon thereafter by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who said, “our Military needs to be upgraded…Our B-52 bombers — 50 years old…You know, if we don’t get the military right nothing else matters.” Finally, also speaking to military readiness, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) added, “The air component…needs to be modernized. The B-52…is an outdated model that was flown by the grandparents of people that are flying it now.”

{mosads}In fact, the B-52 was last manufactured in 1962, leading President Ronald Reagan to call for the aircraft to be replaced in 1982, cautioning, “Many of our B-52 bombers are now older than the pilots who fly them.” Yet, thirty-three years later, the Air Force plans to extend the operational life span of the bomber until at least 2040 and possibly see it fly into its 100th year of service – or beyond.

However, the antiquated B-52 is the crux of a larger issue for the Air Force. Not only is the B-52 alarmingly outdated, the entire intercontinental bomber fleet – with an average age of 36 years – is in danger of becoming technologically obsolete as well.

In addition to the B-52, the intercontinental bomber fleet is comprised of the supersonic B-1 and the stealth B-2, both were designed in the 1970s and 1980s and intended to serve as replacements for the B-52.

Yet the U.S. has struggled to implement a viable replacement program – all of which, including the B-1 and B-2, have been marred by budget overruns and technical challenges that resulted in their premature cancellation. Development of the B-2 stealth bomber, for instance, was terminated after procuring just 21 of 120 aircraft the Air Force originally intended when costs soared from $500 million to over $2 billion per aircraft and technical flaws initially prevented it from flying in rain.

As a result, the Pentagon has come to depend heavily on the aging B-52, which still comprises nearly half of all long-range bombers in the U.S. fleet.

Despite its age, the B-52 served admirably in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the antiquated state of B-52 squadrons – even after upgrades and overhauls – is becoming increasingly apparent. The New York Times recently documented the sad state of some of these aircraft, “On a recent training flight out of Barksdale Air Force Base after three days of rain, leaks in a bomber left the seats soaked and the control panel glistening. One engine refused to start, then some wiring shorted.” 

Moreover, the lumbering bomber is often only capable of operating against adversaries that lack sophisticated air-defenses or after air supremacy has been established.

Underscoring how desperately the U.S. needs a new long-range bomber to meet national security objectives of the 21st century, including mounting hostility from Russia and China, General Mark Welsh III, chief of staff of the Air Force, recently said, “The idea that we would run a Formula One or a NASCAR race with a car built in 1962 is ridiculous, but we’re going to war with airplanes built in 1962.”

In its latest attempt to modernize the fleet, the Pentagon recently awarded Northrop Grumman an initial contract worth $21 billion to begin construction on the next-generation, stealth Long Range Strike Bomber – set to enter service in the 2030s.

If the procurement strategy is successfully implemented, the U.S. plans to purchase 100 new bombers. And while a step in the right direction, some have argued it will not be sufficient to meet emerging security threats.  

In analysis conducted for the Mitchell Institute, former Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller argued the Air Force needs 200 new bombers to adequately address evolving national security challenges, “Limiting production of the new bomber, LRS-B, to 100 airframes would severely decrease the options available to national decision-makers during times of crisis or periods of instability,” Moeller writes. “A modernized bomber force of 200 aircraft will sustain America’s asymmetric advantage in long-range precision strike for decades to come.”

Speaking of the immense strategic importance of the new Long Range Strike Bomber, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the aircraft would allow the US to “project power across the globe now and into the future…The age of our bomber fleet requires new thinking and new capabilities. Building this bomber is a strategic investment for the next 50 years.”

Failure to successfully procure a new, robust Long Range Strike Bomber fleet sufficient to meet mission demands of the Air Force will threaten military preparedness and undermine U.S. national security throughout the 21st century. The United States has one last shot to – finally – get it right.

Poulin is a graduate student at Dartmouth College where his research focuses on national security and science and technology. 

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