The most important contribution that I believe I can make to this debate is as an academic student of military affairs and in particular, as the scholar who directed the US Air Force’s official study of the war with Iraq, the Gulf War Air Power Survey. That study, incorporating eleven reports, and produced in both classified and unclassified formats, is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive study of the use of air power since the Second World War. I believe that its conclusions, and the broader reflection on the nature of air power that emerged from it, has something to offer your deliberations today.
The argument for the B-2 bomber rests on a simple proposition: that long-range precision strike, which is the mission and unique capability of the B-2, is an essential for American forces in the future. By long-range precision strike I mean the ability to deliver guided munitions without refueling from distances of, let us say, a thousand miles or more. What I hope to do here is ask, and suggest answers to, three questions:
1. Why is long range precision strike a particularly important capability?
The United States is moving from a period in which it could describe the threats to its national security with precision to one in which those threats are uncertain and difficult to discern. This transition will also require a change from defense planning based on scenarios to one based largely on capabilities. No longer can we hope to measure our requirements by, say, the need to fight a relatively short but intense war with the Soviet Union for the control of Europe. Rather, the US will often find itself, as it did in the Gulf crisis of 1990, caught with war plans of only the most rudimentary kind, in political circumstances that were largely unforeseen as recently as six months earlier.
The Gulf War was a successful, massive application of force. It is also likely to remain unique, and hence a dangerous model for future conflicts.
In the future we can expect that:
a. An enemy will not, as did Saddam, give the United States six months’ time to build up forces in a neighboring state, but will either press his initial advantages immediately, disarm us with an effective peace overture, or conduct his aggression in a more subtle and less blatant fashion to begin with;
b. Our base structure will, unlike the Gulf War case, come under attack from special forces and long-range missiles, which will be more accurate and (perhaps) tipped with far more lethal munitions than in the Gulf;
c. Local powers may find themselves deterred from allowing the US to use their territory as a jumping off point for an American counterstroke: imagine, for example, how the Saudis would have reacted to a credible nuclear threat from Saddam in just such circumstances. In addition, in the next substantial conflict our allies may be far less cooperative, for a variety of reasons, than they were in the Gulf. In such circumstances the United States will need the ability to influence a conflict decisively with a minimum of reliance on politically and physically vulnerable bases—hence the need for long range. As for precision, although modern weapons do not have anything like the near perfect accuracy with which the media some times invests them, they do represent a quantum change in the means of air warfare. It is not the case that precision bombs and missiles allow air forces to do more efficiently and with far less collateral damage that which they did fifty years ago with a rain of unguided bombs: rather, whole new target systems (telecommunications, for example, or exquisitely small point targets such as the oil pipeline with which Saddam attempted to pollute the northern Persian Gulf) are opened up by this class of weapons. Moreover, it is now technologically feasible to use guided weapons not merely against stationary targets, but against moving masses of armor.
But—and this is an important qualification—it would be wrong to think that a mere scattering of precision guided bombs will achieve our military purposes. It remains true today, as it has in the past, that air power achieves its greatest results when it strikes at many targets with great violence and simultaneously. As the arts of camouflage, concealment, and burial advance, as counters are found to some of the technologies that acquire targets, it will be necessary to hit some target systems at a number of points and repeatedly. History suggests that such countermeasures do not nullify a particular weapon but rather diminish its effectiveness gradually. As a result, for the qualitative revolution brought about by precision weapons to have their true effect they need to be used in quantity.
2. Why is the B-2 an exceptionally valuable tool for this mission?
The technical characteristics of the B-2 make it an outstanding platform for long-range precision strike. With a payload of 16 precision guided 2,000 pound bombs and intercontinental range it is, very simply, the premier weapon of its kind.
The advantages of range and striking power are reinforced by the B-2’s characteristics as a stealthy platform. Stealth does not, of course, make an aircraft (or anything else) invisible: what stealth does is to reduce (in this case to an amazing degree) the possibility of tactically useful detection by an opponent. What makes stealth so useful?
a. It allows an attacker to dispense with many, if not all, of the supporting packages of aircraft necessary to support a conventional strike. This, correspondingly reduces not only expense, but vulnerability;
b. It allows the restoration of surprise in air warfare, particularly in attacks against mobile targets which might evade or oppose attacks they knew were coming;
c. It represents a capability that is, for the moment unique to the United States.
This last, essentially psychological point, is an important one. What deters potential opponents of the United States from acting contrary to our interests and policy? I would say, "the knowledge that the United States has the capability to deliver military blows against which there is no defense, and which it has the will to use, even without the support of any other nation on earth." The stealth bomber—untouchable, lethal, and independent—is a potent mark of American power. In the new age in which we find ourselves, such a characteristic is particularly desirable.
3. What alternatives are there to the B-2?
The current B-2 force is an excessively small one. Barely a score of aircraft, of which some will, no doubt, always be undergoing maintenance, supporting crew training, or devoted to important alert missions, will not generate much of a pulse of power against a substantial opponent. When one considers, in addition, the likelihood of long-range missions, which take time to fly and for crew planning and rest, one realizes that only a fraction of this tiny force will ever actually be in the front line—much as it takes us at least three aircraft carriers (and maybe more) to keep one deployed forward in peacetime.
Why not, then, turn to other systems for long-range precision strike? The answer is chiefly that in the last decade the United States has, to an amazing degree, stripped itself of its options for this mission. Two outstanding aircraft, the A-6 and the F-111, have left the inventory. A third, the B-52 is an aging platform, older than many of those who fly it, and able to operate only in the most benign of air defense environments. This leaves only the B-1 and the F-15E Strike Eagle. The former has been a troubled aircraft since its early days, and to my understanding, has yet to become operations capable with precision weapons. It is, in any event an aircraft designed for low level penetration of enemy airspace—a dangerous and, as it now appears, unnecessary mode of attack. Only the F-15E is an adequate system for this mission, and it is not only less capable than the B-2 in terms of payload but grossly inferior in terms of range and, of course, stealth. Conventional aircraft such as the F-16 or F/A-18 have the disadvantages of other systems and add, in addition, the further vulnerability of dependence on refueling tankers which themselves are extremely vulnerable to enemy attack in the air.
As for alternative systems, cruise missiles have the range and stealth advantages of the B-2 but are, for the moment, considerably more expensive: at over a million dollars each they do not compare favorably with the guided bombs costing $30,000 or less that can be delivered by the B-2. Furthermore, for certain applications (e.g., penetrating hardened bunkers) the kinetic energy of a dropping bomb is preferable to an air breathing missile. As for ballistic missiles, not only is their cost even higher, arms control restrictions make it difficult for the US to embark on a large scale program of developing conventional, long-range systems of this kind. Other means of conducting long-range precision strike may materialize, most notably strike from space (probably using kinetic energy rounds) or bombing from unmanned platforms. Both, however, have some way to go before they can do the necessary job.
In short, it is difficult to see any alternative to the B-2 that makes sense if the United States is to maintain a robust capability to act independently and forcefully to guard its interests and those of its allies. For that reason above all, I urge you to consider the possibility of further acquisition of this valuable and effective military system.