“...a startlingly low unit cost of $550 million in fiscal 2010 dollars” says Lara Seligman of Defense News regarding the Long Range Strike Bomber program to replace the USAF’s aging strategic bomber fleet. While $550 million is a bargain compared to the cost of a single B-2A Spirit stealth bomber, let’s think about that figure for a moment - it is enough to pay for (your choice) all of the construction for all the facilities and campuses of a small or medium school district; solar panels and complete energy independence for several dozen average-sized residential developments; cover the entire yearly budget of an average-sized city’s public transportation infrastructure with money to spare; or depending on what figures and sources you use outfit an entire fleet of Tomahawk cruise missiles or pay for up to five of your choice of F-35 Lightning IIs or F-22 Raptors, either of which is allegedly as stealthy and as survivable, not to mention faster, “self-escort” capable and with greater multi-role ability than what will be inherent in the LSR-B. With all of this in mind, should the USAF really be putting its money in such a large, slow and expensive one-trick pony?
Topshot: Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, head of the USAF Materials Command, gives a keyote speech at a conference about new military weapons acquisition strategy after criticism of the F-35 procurement saga. Official USAF photo.
Four inert/practice dummy versions of the Small Diameter Bomb loaded onto the weapons bay of an F-22 Raptor with an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM or “Slammer”). The Small Diameter Bomb has increasingly become the ground-attack weapon of choice for the USAF due to its small size and precise attack mode allowing even small tactical aircraft to conduct multiple strikes on protected targets of strategic or tactical nature and multi-objective sorties, with the incoming SDB-II promising further enhanced targeting and “bunker busting” capabilities. Official USAF photo.
The idea of a large or “strategic” bomber more or less officially has its genesis with the revolutionary General William “Billy” Mitchell, a highly influential forward-thinker of what was still then the United States Army Air Corps right after WWI. So highly revolutionary and influential, in fact, that he was repaid by his own service with one of the most infamous court-martials in American military history. The court-martial, and the practicality of war, ended up exonerating Gen. Mitchell in the end as one of the greatest minds in the service, and the Army Air Force gave him proper recognition with naming a bomber aircraft after him which in turn helped prove and pave the way for strategic bombing concepts through the baptism of war. Or so goes the popular story.
For starters, despite the popular folksy misconception of Gen. Mitchell being put on trial as the underdog trying to drag a service still steeped in Victorian-era military practices into the 20th century, his court-martial did not revolve around fears of the proud and romantic cavalry soldier on horseback being replaced by newfangled wood-and-fabric contraptions bombing the enemy from the air in invulnerable, cowardly fashion. Indeed, his court-martial was still a bungled, unfair mess involving ludicrous accusations that any respectable military branch would have immediately repudiated, but Gen. Mitchell was officially raked over the coals for being a scapegoat in the USS Shenandoah disaster, not for being an advocate of strategic bombing. Furthermore, he was hardly alone in realizing the military potential of strategic bombing - Gen. Walther Wever was the Luftwaffe’s version of Gen. Mitchell and pushed for a large “Ural Grossbomber” that as the name implies would be capable of bombing targets deep into Russia, namely Moscow. Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, as his name implies, really liked the idea of literally bombing Nazi Germany into submission - you have him to thank for inspiring Kurt Vonnegut to write Slaughterhouse 5. Gen. Mitchell’s spiritual successor and later failed Vice-Presidential candidate Gen. Curtis LeMay carried Gen Mitchell’s philosophy to the ultimate conclusion WWII-era technology would allow with the massive B-29 firebombing campaigns over Tokyo, a legacy that ultimately sunk his political career in 1968 with a Vietnam War-weary public having a massive change of heart over what the nature of warfare should be.
Although Gen. Mitchell’s aerial strategic warfighting concepts were revolutionary for the time and proven through the horrors of WWII, like many adopted revolutionary concepts they tended to be treated as static Gospel invulnerable to the changing nature of politics and technology (until the next revolution-turned-static policy comes around). During his court-martial, Gen. Mitchell predicted that the future of warfare would be fought with supersonic airships duking it out like flying battlewagons - eh, maybe half-right if you’re feeling generous. The fact of the matter is, the state of aviation technology for the time (and for decades to come) meant that attacking an enemy’s deep-territory resources necessitated a very large aircraft in order to carry the fuel necessary to make the journey. Due to a lack of precision munitions and the overall primitive nature of munitions period, a large number of them were necessary to demolish a factory into being permanently inoperable. You dropped all of them at once or in a neat little line carpet-bombing style in order to ensure by sheer volume (and hope) that more than a few actually hit the desired target. During WWII (and before, during the Spanish Civil War) just outright bombing the civilian population as a means of slowly killing an enemy nation off outright was also considered a valid means of warfare as advocated by Sir “Bomber” Harris and Gen. LeMay - not to mention by the infamous genocidal tyrants Hitler and Stalin.
Well, guess what, things have changed since then - though the concept of strategic bombing hasn’t quite caught up to the modern day political and technological realities. The biggest issue, of course, being the large nuclear weapons stockpiles built up over both sides of the Iron Curtain and now being obtained by “third party actors” such as Pakistan, India, China and North Korea. The most immediate implication is that a much smaller munitions package - just one bomb, in fact - is now sufficient to obliterate an entire city. In fact, you can even put this bomb on the end of a very large rocket and lob the rocket to whatever city you want without putting any of your own personnel at risk. Moreover on the political implications, it also means that conducting a WWII-style civilian carpet bombing campaign against a nation with nuclear weapons capability will be met with a nuclear response, limiting the options and nations of which such carpet bombing can realistically be conducted against.
Of course, North Vietnam didn’t have nuclear weapons capability, so carpet bomb them with B-52s we did. The B-52 was in the 1960s absolutely cutting-edge, fast and high-flying - yet the carpet bombing campaigns of Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I/II saw them suffer casualties against supersonic MiG-21 interceptors and a new weapon seen as revolutionary as the strategic bomber had been - the Surface-to-Air Missile. The Vietnam experience spurred the USAF to research technology to make the strategic bomber viable in a heavily-defended airspace environment, leading to the supersonic B-1B “Bone” and the stealthy, secretive and ultra-expensive B-2A. But while the technical questions of the strategic bomber’s obsolescence were being addressed, the political obsolescence was not, even when President Nixon’s announcement of bombing campaigns in Cambodia was met with mass protest.
Today, the idea of laying waste to a civilian population is met with extreme public distaste. The destruction of a civilian air raid shelter during Desert Storm would hardly have been newsworthy during WWII, but in 1991 it became a part of a “warmonger” legacy that would hang around Secretary of Defense-turned-Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush a decade later. Specifically avoiding civilian casualties is what made precision attack munitions a political top priority in addition to their raw military efficiency. Meanwhile, the desire to fit a ground attack munition that can be fitted in decent numbers into the constrained weapons bay of the F-22, combined with field experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom that often saw 2,000 lb “bunker busters” ditched in favor of 250 lb. bombs with precision guidance kits or even in some cases inert dummy rounds used in combat to kinetically kill targets, spurred the development of what may very well be the most revolutionary precision-guided munition yet - the GBU-39, most often known simply as the Small Diameter Bomb. The same factory that needed multiples of 8,000 lbs of bombs from an armada of B-17s that also took out the entire city around the factory now can be demolished by a single F-16 lobbing one or two Small Diameter Bombs while leaving any surrounding structures untouched, with the F-16 moving on to different mission objectives with whatever SDBs still remain.
With precision-guided munitions becoming more lethal as they get smaller, it brings into question what use does a large, stealthy strategic bomber have when strategic missions can be conducted by cheaper, supersonic multi-role F-22s equipped with SDBs or larger weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (or J-DAM). Even the massive GBU-28, often seen as the ultimate Bunker Buster, is happily carried by the F-15E. Really, if anything at least ordinance-wise, the main justification for such large stealth bombers regards having a platform being able to carry the GBU-57 Massive Ordinance Penetrator, a weapon that may or may not have even been tested in combat. Already the Air Force is seeking a smaller, more efficient replacement that can be carried by smaller aircraft.
So is there still a place and necessity for large bomber aircraft capable of lofting ungodly large weapons loads or hilariously-huge bombs, or can the enemy be crippled with deep-strike missions conducted by F-22s and F-35s with SDBs negating the need for what may be an old warfare concept leftover from when civilians were still considered valid military targets?