Statement represents the personal views of the author rather than the views of the organizations with which he is associated.
My name is Loren Thompson. I direct the defense program of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and teach in the National Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. I am pleased to respond to the Committee's invitation to offer my personal views on the advisability of purchasing additional B-2 bombers.
We all know what makes the B-2 a unique aircraft. It combines the traditional virtues of heavy bombers -- intercontinental range and big bombloads -- with stealth technology and precision targeting capability. A B-2 can fly anywhere in the world within a few hours, safely penetrate modern air defenses, and precisely destroy up to sixteen separate targets with minimum collateral damage. No other aircraft in the world can reliably accomplish such a mission.
Unfortunately, one other thing that makes the B-2 unique is the high cost of building it. My understanding is that the contractor is proposing a multi-year purchase of nine more B-2s for $7 billion, which implies a cost of $780 million per plane. That's a lot of money: for the same amount you could buy five 747 jumbojets.
Money is the main reason why many critics oppose production of more B-2s. Although there is widespread agreement that the B-2 is an impressive aircraft, even revolutionary, the pricetag is just too high for some people to accept. Why buy more, they ask, when less costly alternatives exist that can achieve the same objectives in wartime?
That brings me to the message of my testimony today, which is simply this: the alternatives actually cost more, and yet probably won't work. If we terminate the B-2 production program at 21 planes as presently planned, we will eventually spend much more money for a much less capable military force than if we had simply increased the size of the B-2 fleet. In order to understand why this is so, it is necessary to examine the operational and budgetary implications of the proposed alternatives to buying more B-2s.
Alternatives Probably Won't Work
Let me begin with the operational implications. The main reason we buy fighters and bombers is to gain command of the air so that we can destroy an adversary's ability and will to wage war. That was the goal of the six-week air campaign in Operation Desert Storm, and of pretty much every other air campaign in the twentieth century . It also will probably be the principal objective of every major air campaign that we conduct in the future.
The Air Force's present plan for accomplishing this goal is to supplement its 21 B-2s with older, non-stealthy bombers and fighters equipped for ground attack. In theory, the stealthy B-2 would destroy enemy air defenses, enabling more numerous non-stealthy planes like the B-52 and F-15E to carry the main weight of attack against enemy forces. In practice, this concept of operations is based on a number of optimistic assumptions that may not prove true in wartime.
First of all, the air defenses of future adversaries may be concealable, mobile and redundant, as our own are today. It may not be feasible to destroy them during the early stages of a conflict. In such circumstances, any effort by the 95% of planes in our present force that are non-stealthy to penetrate hostile air space could result in severe losses.
Second, most of the fighter-bombers that the Air Force and Navy would use in future air campaigns will have only a fraction of the intercontinental range and munitions-carrying capacity of the B-2. That means several times more aircraft would need to be used to attack an equivalent number of targets, and if access to regional bases and littoral seas is denied they probably could not be used at all.
Third, in the absence of complete destruction of enemy air defenses, non-stealthy fighters and bombers alike will require escorts to safely transit hostile air space -- electronic warfare aircraft to jam enemy radar, defense suppression aircraft to destroy missile sites, fighters to counter interceptors and so on. Almost all of these escorts, like the fighter-bombers, would require nearby bases or aircraft carriers to operate effectively. If bases and carriers are too far away, or are destroyed, or simply don't exist, the escorts can't operate.
Fourth, without effective defense suppression or escorts, the majority of heavy bombers in the planned force that are not stealthy would probably be relegated to standoff roles -- meaning they would be shooting cruise missiles hundreds of miles from intended targets. But such missiles can't hit moving targets such as tank columns and mobile Scud launchers, and the Air Force doesn't plan to buy enough cruise missiles to attack more than a fraction of the targets destroyed in Desert Storm.
The entire air campaign might therefore quickly come down to a handful of B-2s -- the only planes in the force that don't require nearby basing or specialized escorts in order to operate effectively in defended air space. B-2s are great planes, but it is not likely that the U.S. could win an air war far from home against a capable enemy with only 21 planes. In other words, we might lose the war.
The Air Force has dealt with these uncertainties by simply assuming defenses can be suppressed, regional bases will be available, and other inconveniences won't arise. But if you're going to take that approach to military planning, why not just assume there won't be a war in the first place?
Alternatives Cost More
Let me turn now, briefly, to the question of costs. Critics of the B-2 often complain about the high acquisition and life-cycle costs of the plane. Ask these same critics what the alternatives will cost. They seldom have any idea.
For example, some critics say it is cheaper to load up older bombers with long-range cruise missiles rather than paying for a stealthy penetrating bomber. Cruise missiles cost a million dollars each. The equally-accurate glide bombs carried by the B-2 cost around $20,000 each. Multiply those munitions costs by thousands of targets -- we attacked 40,000 aimpoints in the Desert Storm air war -- and ask yourself which approach costs more.
Some critics also contend it is cheaper to use tactical aircraft operating from regional bases or aircraft carriers than to rely on the B-2. What do the bases and the carriers cost? How much do we have to spend for all the escort aircraft and tankers to make these options viable -- not just the planes themselves, but the air crews, the spare parts, the ground support, the fuel and so on?
The Defense Department apparently has not developed a rigorous and comprehensive estimate of these amounts, but it is clear that the "opportunity costs" of foregoing additional B-2 production are quite substantial.
I would note in passing that a 1996 Defense Science Board report found nearly half of all active-duty personnel in the Air Force are performing "commercial activities" -- i.e., activities that could be accomplished more efficiently by nongovernmental personnel. When you see an estimate like that juxtaposed with the service's assertion that it can't afford more bombers, it makes you wonder what this whole debate is really about.
In my mind, it comes down to this: we have entered a period of diminished danger in which we are more concerned about the near-term budgetary and bureaucratic impacts of our actions than about long-term military consequences. The nation has passed through such periods in the past, and we all know how prepared they left us for the next war.
It will be easier to balance the books this year and next if we walk away from our $40 billion investment in the B-2 with only 21 planes to show for the effort. But we should be under no illusions about what sort of Air Force we are passing on to the next generation of Americans. It will be a less capable and more costly Air Force. It will be an Air Force that according to its own leaders will still be operating eighty-year-old B-52s in the year 2040.
Whether such an Air Force will be capable of coping with the challenges of the next century is uncertain. About one thing, though, we can be certain: when the next great threat to American survival arises, as it surely will, the consequences of the choices made by this Congress will look much different than they do today.
Loren B. Thompson
In the last three fiscal years, Dr. Thompson has received the following income from federal sources: $10,000 from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to assist in the preparation of an industrial assessment; $25,000 from the Office of Economic Adjustment through the City of Philadelphia to assist in the reuse of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard; $10,900 from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict through Jaycor Corporation and National Security Research, Inc. to participate in a nonlethal weapons project; $7,200 from the Department of the Army through the Hay Group to assist in the reengineering of an intelligence activity; and $3,000 from the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation through the Hay Group to develop a briefing on defense management and technology trends. During the same period, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution has received no federal grants or contract income.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|