March 02, 2002



(Also see part 1, below) If one accepts the argument that the strategic bomb wing is a fulcrum asset, comparable to a naval carrier group in its transformative impact on the battlefield, then the question becomes, who else besides the Americans has, or could have, one? As everyone can probably deduce, the answer is no one, really... but let's be a little more precise.

First, let's list the characteristics that made the B-1/B-52 combo so deadly in Afghanistan, as well as anywhere else on the globe's surface where the Americans enjoy a little air superiority (that's not a euphemism... assuming the Americans retain control of Diego Garcia and Guam, any of their 5 strategic air wings can reach out and touch any populated land surface in the world with at most one refueling): they're high-altitude, high-capacity (12,000 lb bomb load or higher), high cruising-speed bombers with combat radii in excess of 1,500 miles and equipped with GPS-guided precision weapons that don't require either a second pass or a controller on the ground or in the air. That last element is crucial: the advent of the GPS weapon has turned the classic postwar problem with airforces on its head. Before about 1995, every modern air force had to choose between high-altitude, inaccurate attacks or low-altitude, potentially risky attacks. One saw this in Kosovo, where the rock and the hard place for NATO were misplaced and unpopular attacks on tractor convoys, and the Yugoslav SAM net waiting patiently for the attackers to start flying under 15,000 feet to avoid those kinds of mistakes. The GPS weapon means accurate airstrikes are possible from altitudes of complete impunity; other than for purposes of air defense suppression, the best strike aircraft is once again the one that can get the farthest with the mostest... enter (or reenter) the B-52s.

Why 1,500 miles? Well, just about every major power has strike aircraft that can knock out the other guy's airbases at 900 miles or less (the F-15E's combat radius is 790 miles, the Tornado IDS and the Su-24 870). Even the Australian F-111 and new Russian SU-34 peter out at 1,200 miles or so. But the true intercontinental bomber can strike from bases so far away that counterstriking is not possible: they can be defended against, sure, but their owner automatically assumes the strategic initiative, able to pick the time and place of his attacks. The big problem with smaller strike aircraft is finding suitable theatre basing within range of their targets. But it's hard to imagine even the most unpopular nation couldn't find a suitable base for the asking within 1,500 miles of a given combat zone.

Now, it goes without saying that the only nations who can have a GPS-reliant system are the Americans or their permanent allies, as they own the GPS satellites. That's one strike against all the other countries. But assuming the Americans acceded, there's still a problem: a big one. You can't just buy a strategic bomber, or convert another plane into one: they're too specialized. And except for the Americans, Russians and Chinese, no one has built one in decades, and no one's currently planning to build any more of them. Even if the Americans did give you GPS bombs, you'd still have to upgrade an existing strategic bomber to carry the weapons (which would take about 5 years), or start a whole new production run... which automatically means at least 10 years of development and construction before the first one is available... and that's for a highly industrialized nation.

So, assuming the Americans give them GPS access, who has any bomber frames that could be refitted to use it? Only three countries: Russia, China, and the Ukraine.

Existing strategic bombers:
Russia: c. 200 (15 Tu-160, 80 Tu-95, 100 Tu-22M)
China: 100+ (Tu-16)
Ukraine: c. 80 (55 Tu-22M, 26 Tu-22)

Iraq's strategic bomber fleet was destroyed on the airfields in 1991. Egypt's and Libya's are unserviceable, as are those inherited by Belarus. (India also has 15 ex-Russian bombers, which it uses for maritime surveillance.) Russia's Tu-160s are modern aircraft; the Tu-22Ms still have considerable potential, as well. One would say the remainder, including all of China's, are hopelessly obsolescent... if one wasn't reminded how long the 40 year-old-plus B-52s have been in service. GPS is simple technology... assuming any of these planes could fly, they could probably be converted to carry the bombs, at some considerable expense in treasure and time. But basically only these nations are 5 years and millions away from having even a single modern strategic bomber: despite cutbacks, America still has nearly 200, and veto power over who else can join the GPS club. And the only way any other country not on that list could hope to go strategic would be to purchase some part of one of those air fleets, making further proliferation extremely unlikely, at best.

In terms of strategic air assets, then the Americans are without peer or competitor. Even their Navy can't say they're as unchallenged in their element as the USAF's Strategic Air Command is today: at least some other nations have aircraft carriers. But more on those carriers later.

CODA: One gains new respect in this analysis, for those savvy Australians: unbelievably, they have acquired for themselves the closest thing to a modern strategic bomber wing extant outside the USAF. If they chose to convert them, their 20 F-111s could theoretically carry 2 internally-stored JDAM-type weapons each to precision-hit targets over 1,000 miles away, in any weather: farther than any other combat strike aircraft in service today (except possibly the new Russian Su-34). When the Americans closed down their F-111 fleet a few years ago, the Aussies stocked up on spare airframes and parts at firesale prices, giving them an increased capability for long-range precision air power arguably now second only to the United States (Several European countries have larger numbers of precision strike aircraft, but with significantly shorter ranges.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:59 PM



The Air Force just dropped its first thermobaric munition, which, as this site discussed in December, is what you call a fuel-air bomb when the good guys use it.

Posted by BruceR at 10:53 PM



I'll never understand for the life of me why the Pentagon is still hell-bent on reducing the number of its strategic bombers in service. The 28th Air Expeditionary Wing in Diego Garcia, and in particular its 8 B-1B's (each capable of carrying 24 2,000 lb. JDAMs... the B-52 can only carry 6 internally) were the real war winners in Afghanistan. I've posted some comparative stats here. Basically, the carriers off Pakistan were each launching around 30 FA-18/F-14 sorties a day, each carrying 1 2,000 precision bomb or its equivalent at that extended range. The 18-plane wing at Diego Garcia, meanwhile, was launching 4 B-1s and 5 B-52s each day, with up to 126 similar sized JDAMs between them, or the equivalent of 4 carrier battle groups in long-range sustained operation conditions.

With the advent of GPS-guided munitions, the strategic bomber is back in the game again, as Gregg Easterbrook and others have noted. One of the Air Force's 5 remaining Strategic Bomb Wings (2 B-1, 2-B-52, 1 B-2) are, in at least some scenarios, more useful than one of the Navy's 12 carrier groups. All of them are what I've referred to as "fulcrum assets": military units capable of independently and dramatically changing the military situation on the ground, anywhere in the world, with minimal losses and relative impunity. And unlike the naval carrier group (a technological realm in which 8 other nations more or less convincingly still pretend to compete in), there is no other nation even in the same ballpark as the Americans when it comes to strategic air assets. More on this later.

Posted by BruceR at 03:05 PM