advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On The Air Force Bomber Problem, Or, It May Be Time For That Bake Sale

I come today with a message many of you will not want to hear, particularly in a time when we are looking forward to ending a war...and in a time where we are already struggling to provide enough money for military funding, the last thing you want to hear from me is that we need to send a couple hundred billion more to the Air Force—and that we need to do it soon.

Nonetheless, we have a problem we need to fix.

Of course, I hate to present a problem without a solution...and today I have two ideas that can help with the problem—and maybe save the taxpayer a mess of money in the process.

Y’all ready?
Then let’s go...

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the Air Force relies on bombers to perform a variety of “softening up” missions: such missions can be as simple as dropping a single bomb on a gun emplacement or as final as the last bomb dropped on the last day of human existence to soften up a missile silo.

The bomber they rely upon the most is the B-52...and it’s just getting too old to do the job it has undertaken for a half century. The newer bombers are either too small, too vulnerable to anti-aircraft systems or too few in numbers to replace the B-52--and that means we are going to have to find a replacement.

Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all!

It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

--Sun Tzu; “The Art of War

Obviously, a variety of missions require a variety of tools, so let’s take a minute to describe the bomber fleet as it currently exists.

The B-52, previously introduced, weighs in at just a bit over 480,000 pounds (about the same weight as a Boeing 767). 60,000 of that is weapons load. The aircraft can carry nuclear weapons like the B-83 gravity bomb but it is used extensively to deliver conventional weapons, which can cover the gamut from cluster munitions to “penetrating weapons” to cruise missiles. 94 of the aircraft are reportedly operational today.

A typical attack on an enemy troop formation might involve dropping 150 or so MK-82 500-pound bombs from three of these aircraft at high altitude. The effect is so shocking to the massed forces that they often surrender to the nearest US troops, and that happened over and over during the first Gulf War.

For hardened positions, the aircraft deploys MK-84 2000 pound bombs or the AGM-142 cruise missile (the Have Nap), and for situations where the “threat environment” does not allow the B-52 to fly over a normal target, the JASSM cruise missile has a range of up to 200 miles, and the AGM-86/C cruise missile allows for attacks from 600 miles away with near-“through the window” accuracy....assuming all goes well. More on that in tomorrow's part 2.

This is not a supersonic aircraft, however, and as Soviet air defenses improved in capability the need for a more survivable aircraft was identified, leading to the introduction of the B-1A during the 1980’s. The swing-wing design of this aircraft allowed for high performance at supersonic speeds and improved low-speed flight as well. An advanced version of this aircraft, the B-1B, flies today.

The B-1B does not carry nuclear weapons, but at 477,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight it can actually carry more MK-82 bombs than the B-52—as many as 84. This aircraft can also carry weapons that “glide” to a target from substantial distances (out to 40 miles) so as to increase survivability. This is a supersonic aircraft, it employs various technologies to allow it to operate at extremely low altitudes, and 69 of these aircraft are reported to be currently operational.

For a variety of reasons (including problems in the B-1 program) the Air Force introduced the B-2, the primary reason being the improvements in “stealth” design that had come to light over the intervening years; and this bat-winged aircraft is able to operate in the highest-threat environments of any US manned aircraft...again, assuming all goes well.

This is the lightest of the three aircraft, at 160,000 pounds, but it can carry highly precise GBU-37 munitions, which are designed to crack open bunkers by combining a GPS guidance system and a nearly 5000 pound warhead and the equally accurate AGM-137 TASSAM “stealth” cruise missile, which the others cannot.

This is a $2.1 billion aircraft, however, and only 20 were built. There are only 16 currently operational aircraft in the inventory...and it has a bit of a computer problem:

The B-2’s data processing systems, based on the Intel 286 processor, are limited in their ability to be upgraded to interoperate with other DOD systems. This limitation makes real-time mission changes more difficult in comparison to more modern aircraft like the F-22 or F-35. The B-2’s current processing capabilities also limit the aircraft’s ability to incorporate the latest enhancements (sensors) that would enhance its survivability.

--Congressional Research Service; “The Next Generation Bomber: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress”

There are a variety of smaller bombers as well, and the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and the new F-22 bomber concept have all served, are serving, or may soon be serving in the role. The best known of this group, however, might be the F-117 “stealth” fighter...which is really just a small bomber in a Batman outfit.

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.

Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

--Sun Tzu; “The Art of War

So now that you know the players, let’s discuss the missions.

It is possible, as we discussed earlier, that the mission might be penetrating the enemy’s borders and delivering weapons in an extremely high threat environment...and the F-117 or B-2 are the only two manned aircraft in the US inventory that can perform this mission. Only the B-2 can deliver nuclear weapons in such an environment, and it has far greater unrefueled range.

In what might be described as “medium threat” environments the B-1 can use its speed to evade some threats; but for the most part these aircraft operate in zones that have “suppressed” air defenses.

The B-52 can operate only after an environment is cleared of most threats; but like a “bomb truck” it can go out and do its daily runs with high reliability; it has some self-defense capability as well as electronic countermeasure systems that some feel are superior to the B-1’s.

So that’s the aircraft and the missions, which leaves the question...what’s the problem?

It is very simple: we used to be the world leader in shooting things down.
We also used to be able to avoid—or destroy--everyone else’s “shooter-downer thingies.”

But that’s no longer true.

Iran has apparently acquired the Russian S-300 air defense system (described as a better version of our Patriot system) which means it could likely shoot down all current US aircraft with the possible exception of the B-2 and F-117—but there is every possibility that an attack launched against such an air defense system would suffer aircraft and aircrew losses.

If that’s not bad enough, Sweden’s SAAB has tested a “hypersonic” anti aircraft missile that flew at above Mach 5 speeds (roughly 6,500 mph or 10,500 Kph)...far faster than any currently acknowledged aircraft of any country.

As a result, we no longer have absolute confidence that we can hit whatever we need to if we really need to...unless we decide to launch a ballistic missile on the target...which usually means a nuclear missile.

We need better options...and now we’re getting to the “solutions” part of the thing.

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

--Sun Tzu; “The Art of War

The decision over what to put in place to carry out the bomber mission in the future —and how much it might cost--will depend on a few factors:

--will the emphasis move from manned to unmanned aircraft--and by how much?

--will future wars be more likely to be fought over contested or uncontested airspace?

--and what might be the biggest “doctrinal shift” question: will the US continue to operate nuclear-capable bombers?

We have covered a lot of ground today...and I am regularly guilty of letting stories go too let’s stop right here—and in part 2, tomorrow, we’ll consider some answers.


Baht At said...

Do americans ever consider the possibility that not killing people indiscriminately might just be a good idea?

fake consultant said...

absolutely we do...but consider darfur.

we know that government aircraft are bombing innocent civilians.

we could presumably disable the aircraft that are doing the bombing and the airfields that support them through aerial bombing of our own; and i would submit to you that such an action would be neither indiscriminate killing nor unjustified.

if we had an administration in power that was so inclined, we could presumably diplomatically "encourage" the cessation of these somali government attacks by presenting the credible threat of bombing as the alternative if the offensive actions do not cease.

in that instance, the capability of bombing is useful without any application of force.

you may recall that iraqi "no fly zones" did control baathist air attacks on kurds and shi'a in the '90s...and while force was used, it seemed less indiscriminate than more so--and reasonably justified as well.

so to address your question, some of us think about it, but not all of us; and sometimes when we do think about it we get it stupid wrong.