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Long-Range Question Mark

January 20, 2011

The following commentary is reprinted with permission from International Relations & Security Network (ISN), Center for Security Studies, Zurich.

Long-Range Question Mark
©  Peter A Buxbaum
Source:  ISN Insights
January 20, 2011

The U.S. Air Force is pushing for enhanced long-range strike capabilities. The upcoming U.S. government budget will reveal whether the Obama administration will be going along.

The Obama administration will be submitting a proposed defense budget for fiscal year 2012 to the U.S. Congress in February. What is, or is not, included in that budget will provide clues as to the direction Obama intends to take the U.S. military.

A case in point: Will the administration request new funding for long-range strike capabilities? These are essentially strategic bombers that can penetrate enemy defenses from distances of thousands of kilometers.

The U.S. has reduced its long-range strategic bombing capability since the end of the Cold War, even shuttering the Strategic Air Command. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also scrapped a new long-range strike program in 2009.

A new strategic direction?

New funding for long-range strike in an era of budgetary constraints – “The gusher has been turned off,” Gates told his Department of Defense (DoD) underlings in a 2010 speech – would indicate a new strategic direction for the U.S. military. That’s because the so-called “long war” on terror, as it has been pursued in Afghanistan and Iraq, is up close and personal, with plenty of boots on the ground and air support coming from nearby bases and aircraft carriers operating in a permissive environment. The prevalent military posture led Thomas Donnelly, an analyst at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, at the height of the Iraq war in 2006, to decry the Bush-era Pentagon for its long-range strike ambitions.

But if the Obama administration intends to pursue these ambitions, it means it is looking beyond the current conflicts and toward the mitigation of future threats coming from potential adversaries such as China and Iran. The U.S. Air Force has renewed its push for long-range strike capabilities, a move with supporters in Washington.

“A stealthy, long-range strike aircraft is essentially a platform geared to conventional and semi-conventional national security strategies,” noted a report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based advocacy group. Forgoing a new long-range bomber “would be suitable for a national security strategy that bets all-in on an irregular strategy.”

The Air Force’s current bomber force lacks the capabilities to penetrate contested airspace and strike targets in future air campaigns, according to Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based bipartisan think tank. “Pentagon planners viewed long-range strike as a first day capability that would be needed to help rapidly halt invading enemy forces,” he told ISN Insights. “After that, short-range tactical aircraft flying from nearby bases in relatively permissive operating environments could carry out the majority of strike missions.”

Those assumptions led to 20 years of defense budgets that favored investments in short-range fighters at the expense of major new long-range strike programs. The B-2 program, the last bomber the Pentagon acquired, was stopped short at 20 aircraft, of the 132 originally contemplated, in the early 1990s.

U.S. and NATO operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq reinforced DoD’s planning assumptions, Gunzinger noted. But “on reevaluation, the Defense Department’s 1990s planning assumptions provide an unsuitable framework for assessing strike capabilities that may be needed for future operations,” he added. “Our adversaries went to school on us.”

China’s People’s Liberation Army, for example, is building up anti-access and area-denial capabilities (A2AD) with the apparent goal of extending its power to the western half of the Pacific Ocean and denying the U.S. access to that area. Chinese military and political doctrine holds that China should rule the waves out to the second island chain of the Western Pacific, which extends as far as Guam and New Guinea, essentially dividing the Pacific between the U.S. and China and ending U.S. hegemony on that ocean.

Among the A2AD capabilities being fielded by China are anti-satellite weapons; spaced-based reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition; electromagnetic weapons; advanced fighter aircraft; unmanned aerial vehicles; advanced radar systems; and ballistic and cruise missiles.

China and Iran have also hobbled U.S. power projection, Gunzinger noted, by moving potential targets inland, hardening or deeply burying potential targets, and increasing the mobility of key military systems, such as surface-to-air missiles and missile launchers.

Beating the drum of long-range strike

Gunzinger authored a detailed plan for beefing up U.S. long-range strike capabilities in a report entitled Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike, which was released by CSBA in September. Among other things, the report recommends that the U.S. develop and buy 100 penetrating stealth bombers with an unrefueled range of over 9,000 kilometers as well as a new cruise missile that could be launched from both long and short range.

CSBA is not alone in beating the drum of long-range strike. The liberal Center for American Progress has also advocated the procurement of a new long-range bomber, although one with more modest capabilities and lower cost than the B-2.

“Development of a new long-range bomber should focus on meeting the ambitious goal of fielding a new bomber by 2018 through the use of existing technology,” said a CAP publication. “The Air Force should not seek to acquire a ‘gold-plated bomber’ that can offer everything. Rather, the new bomber [should] incorporate existing technology, including low-observability, but not necessarily at the level of the B-2.”

CAP also pointed out in another report that extending the long-range projection of force by the U.S. military could save DoD $80 billion over 10 years by eliminating 50,000 current U.S. personnel now stationed in Europe and Asia.

The Air Force appears to be moving in the direction of requesting a scaled-down bomber program as recommended by CAP. In a recent speech, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley termed long-range strike a “priority.”

“We are confident that a modern long-range strike platform not only has been, but should remain, a critical tool in the nation’s arsenal,” he added. “But we are also cautious. Cautious not to repeat the painful experience of previous Air Force bomber programs: narrowly focused capabilities, high risk technologies, and high costs contributing to affordability problems, leading to program cancellations, or low inventories.”

Whether the Air Force gets what it wants will become apparent when the next U.S. federal government budget is unveiled in February.


Peter A Buxbaum a Washington, DC-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. He holds a Juris doctorate from Temple University and a Bachelor’s in political science and economics from Columbia University. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.

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