Proponents of the Air Force’s heavy bombers have launched a campaign to discredit Army plans for its own long-range strike systems.
One article in the Air Force Association’s monthly magazine quoted the general who oversees the bomber force describing Army plans as “stupid.”
Another piece published in Defense One by an employee of the association’s think tank described Army long-range fires as “the antithesis of jointness,” saying they “will allow the Army to attack the same targets that Air Force bombers and fighters can strike today,” including Chinese area-denial capabilities.
In both cases, critics allege the Army’s plan to develop long-range strike systems is motivated more by concern about its budget share in a Pacific-centric defense posture than by a coherent concept of operations.
The critics are wrong, and their attacks are transparently self-serving in furthering the interests of the institution they serve. More importantly, they neglect key issues surrounding how the U.S. can best deter and/or defeat Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific.
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Here are ten considerations illustrating the weakness of arguments the air power proponents advance, and the inaccuracies in their depiction of Army plans.
Too old, too few. The Air Force’s decrepit fleet of 158 long-range bombers (average age 44 years) has spent much of its time since the Cold War ended attacking enemies who lacked air defenses. How it would fare in a fight with a well-armed power like China is far from clear. Mark Gunzinger, author of the Defense One article, says “penetrating bombers and fighters can find, track and kill mobile targets before they move,” but in fact the Air Force has conceded its bombers are gradually losing their ability to penetrate defended air space.
Next-generation bomber. The Air Force’s solution to the waning survivability of the bomber force is to build a new penetrating bomber dubbed the B-21 and equip its older bombers with stealthy standoff missiles that can do the job of penetration. However, the B-21 is at least a decade away from populating the force in large numbers, and the success of its development program cannot be assumed. Prime contractor Northrop Grumman NOC bid less than the cost of an empty Boeing Dreamliner to build the bombers under a fixed-price production contract, which is exceedingly optimistic. As for the standoff weapons, at a million dollars or more a pop, it is unlikely the service will buy enough munitions to prosecute a major air campaign.
Scarce Pacific bases. Critics question how Army weapons would be deployed in the Western Pacific. They should ask the same question about the bombers. With the exception of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam (1800 miles from China), use of all the regional bases capable of accommodating heavy bombers would require permission from local governments. Countries like the Philippines and Japan might not be so receptive to providing that permission in the future, and the bases in question would be vulnerable to preemption at the onset of war. A B-52 bomber needs 8,000 feet of runway to get off the ground.
Pacific distances. U.S. bombers could potentially fly from Hawaii, but the resulting 10,000-mile round trip would necessarily require aerial refueling at some point. The Air Force is buying a new aerial refueler that is highly capable, but it too would need to be based somewhere near China, and unlike the B-21 it is not going to be stealthy. The hardest part of a Pacific air campaign is sustaining operations over vast distances far from the American homeland. With only 158 bombers—many of which would not be available at any given time—the tanking requirement presents imposing operational challenges.
Nuclear dilemma. The Air Force doesn’t seem to have given much thought to the fact that by 2035 its heavy bomber force will consist almost entirely of nuclear-capable aircraft. Using such aircraft to carry conventional strike weapons into the air space of another nuclear power is potentially destabilizing in a crisis. After all, there’s no way Beijing can know for sure what weapons the bombers are carrying. It might feel pressured to use its own nuclear weapons for fear of losing them in a strategic attack. None of the weapons the Army is buying are nuclear, so the danger of misunderstandings in a crisis would not be as great.
Confounding adversaries. No doubt about it, deploying Army long-range weapons in the Western Pacific would complicate matters. But the complexity would benefit U.S. forces by presenting Beijing with additional challenges for which it would need to develop responses. The key to deterring Chinese aggression in the region is to present Beijing’s military with so many potential wartime problems that it can easily imagine a move such as attacking Taiwan going off the rails.
Pressure on joint assets. With or without Army long-range weapons, the U.S. Air Force and Navy will have their hands full if there is conflict with China. Recent slides released by the Indo-Pacific Command depict a rapidly growing Chinese anti-access force that will greatly outnumber America’s regional military presence in the future. That is one reason why the Marine Corps wants to help the Navy in securing sea control. Army long range munitions can take some of the pressure off other joint strike assets in a future war.
Army jointness. Contrary to what critics claim, the Army’s investment in long-range fires has always been underpinned by a commitment to jointness. For instance, John Rafferty, head of the Army’s cross-functional fires team, told my think tank last year that “long-range weapons can’t be single-service weapons, they will be part of a joint portfolio of long-range strike options.” The Army envisions relying on the airborne and overhead reconnaissance capabilities of other services to assist it in targeting long-range strike weapons for maximum effect. So rather than being the antithesis of jointness, Army plans epitomize the goal of interservice cooperation.
Time to target. Army long-range strike systems aren’t just being developed for the Pacific theater of operations. They would also provide new warfighting options in Europe and Southwest Asia. But no matter where they are deployed overseas, they would require basing on the territory of other nations, just as most Air Force assets would. With regard to China, the Army has a number of candidate locations, including in the first island chain off China’s coast. Army weapons in some of these locations would typically reach time-sensitive targets in China much faster than bombers arriving from distant bases.
Army survivability. The article in the Air Force Association’s magazine asserts that Army forces in the Pacific “will be shooting from a fixed, ground-based location…while bombers are always moving.” This is sophistry. Air Force bombers spend most of their time on the ground at large, vulnerable bases. The Army’s plans for future fires of all ranges assumes road-mobile systems that can be rapidly repositioned to minimize vulnerability. While most such systems would be impossible for current Chinese reconnaissance assets to find and target, the entire Army approach to war in the Pacific or anywhere else presumes continuous maneuver to confuse adversaries and maximize the survivability of friendly forces.