To keep Russia’s and China’s generals guessing, and to slip beyond the grasp of their missiles, U.S. heavy bombers are getting lighter on their feet.
Last week, two B-1 Lancers—the heavy-lifters of the U.S. bomber family—headed to the Black Sea from South Dakota on a nonstop 14,000-mile, 29-hour round trip.
It was the sixth long-range mission from the mainland United States in just six weeks, all aiming to showcase the Department of Defense’s new strategy: dynamic force employment.
“Bombers will instead be employed in a far more dynamic fashion, or they’ll be surged from home stations, predominantly, if not exclusively in the continental United States, and conduct missions around the world,” Timothy Walton, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times.
“This shift initially drew some concern because continuous bomber presence has been viewed by U.S. citizens in the Marianas, and then U.S. allies in the region as a clear signal of U.S. resolve in the region.”
However, the vigorous adoption of the new approach over the last few weeks has alleviated some of the concerns allies have, Walton says.
“In fact, it’s likely that bombers operating from U.S. bases are now even more capable than they were in the past.”
The Guam Killer Missiles
While the flight times are longer, in general, the bombers—which are old and battle-weary from the war on terror—will be better maintained and have greater access to munitions stores on the mainland, he says.
In April, for the first time in 16 years, the U.S. Air Force left the key strategic Pacific island of Guam with no heavy bombers. A few days later, a U.S. B-1 flew on a Bomber Task Force Mission to the Pacific on a 30-hour round trip to Japan from North Dakota, with the Air Force saying it was showcasing a new “dynamic force employment” strategy.
The strategic shift is one of many changes aimed at unpicking the strategic prowess accumulated by China and Russia in recent decades.
Beijing’s war chest swelled around tenfold over the past couple of decades, and China amassed the world’s biggest arsenal of long-range missiles, while the United States was focused on the war on terror.
One of China’s farthest-reaching missiles, the D-26, has even been dubbed the “Guam killer.”
Meanwhile, Russia has also built up its air defenses and long-reaching missiles across its frontier in Europe.
The U.S. military in 2018 began to pivot to face renewed power competition with Russia and China as its top priority, modernizing and rethinking decades-old strategies. The shift was driven by the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which among other changes called for the military to be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.”
That demand for a more fleet-footed military spawned “dynamic force employment”—which has been an experiment by the Navy and Army. The aim is to avoid the predictability of fixed rotations or of permanent presence, stretching the same forces further, and keeping adversaries off balance.
In 2018, for the first time in a decade, the Arabian Gulf was left without an aircraft carrier strike group, as the USS Harry Truman, which sailed to the Arctic Circle, became the first carrier to patrol there since the Cold War.
That was the first taste of dynamic force employment for the Navy, with deployment cycles—sometimes known two years in advance by sailors’ families and Chinese generals alike—now being broken into unpredictable missions.
Enough Skin in the Game?
Some analysts have suggested that the change by the Navy marks something of a return to Cold War strategies.
Mark Gunzinger, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former B-52 pilot, told The Epoch Times that the Air Force is now beginning to shift toward the strategy—but suggests it is, in some ways, not new.
“While dynamic force employment is a term currently in vogue and a good term, and it is very descriptive of what the Joint Force is doing, I would argue that dynamic force employment as a much broader concept is exactly what our Air Force has done for a very, very long time.”
Some analysts have said that the shift away from Guam was as much about getting bombers out of harm’s way from Chinese missiles as about a new strategy.
Gunzinger, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says that’s a fair point.
“I don’t think our Air Force would disagree, or DoD for that matter, that increasingly our bases abroad—certainly along the first island chain and even the second island chain—are increasingly vulnerable to air missile attacks by China. That’s part of China’s overall strategy: to grow its capability and capacity to strike with precision over longer and longer ranges.”
“Airmen know that the best way to kill your enemy’s air forces is to attack them where they tend to be most vulnerable—and that’s on the ground before they can launch. So, airbase attack, seaport attacks, etc, are part of China’s strategy, certainly.”
“Demonstrating that we can fly sorties from the U.S. if necessary, that we can deploy to lots of different places in Europe, in the Indo-Pacific in the Middle East that matter and operate out of there, if necessary, again, creates a much harder challenge for our competitors who have to try to puzzle out how we will deploy.”
But John Venable, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation and former Air Force commander, thinks that the deterrence effect is limited.
For the likes of the Philippines, Iran, or even North Korea, the current token sorties could act as a deterrent, Venable told The Epoch Times.
“When you see a B-52 off your coastline, that’s a significant message,” he says.
But for Russia and China, those numbers need to be a lot higher for credible deterrence, Venable says.
“This idea that you can provide ‘strategic deterrence’ with one or two platforms, is something that the Chinese or the Russians would just kind of chuckle at.”
He’s saying that sheltering totally out of harm’s way on mainland United States, with no skin in the game, demonstrates lack of resolve to allies.
Venable flew fighter jets during the Cold War.
“When I was based in Europe, everyone in Germany and in the Netherlands and in England and in Spain where I was based, all of those locations were at risk with Soviet weaponry of one type or another.
“We have to be there to show our intent our resolve to hold the line. Moving those bombers back to the United States from Guam removes that thought process of resolve.”
But the strategy is still just in the testing phase, Walton says.
“I think it demonstrates the Air Force’s commitment to actually shift to this dynamic force employment. And what has started now, with one to two aircraft in flight, may grow in the future.”
“But more importantly, it develops the institutional knowledge for how to conduct those types of operations and synchronize with necessary aerial refueling.”
The Role of the Bombers
There are currently three bomber types in the U.S. arsenal: The 60-year-old B-52 Stratofortress, the 40-year-old B-1 Lancer, and the 25-year-old B-2 stealth bomber.
The role of bombers in a full-blown conflict is to deliver a large quantity of ordnance on high-value targets—including those that may be deep in an adversary’s territory.
“We project power from our homeland and from our bases abroad,” says Gunzinger. “But when we’re talking about say, great power, conflict, China or Russia, we play an away game, and they’re playing a home game.”
Both Russia and China have the advantage of vast umbrellas of protection against aircraft and missiles in the Pacific and Baltic—known as Anti-Access Area Denial (A2Ad) in military circles.
Bombers provide the ability to take the fight to high-value military targets directly from the U.S. homeland, Gunzinger said.
“Frankly, the only capabilities that we have that can attack on night one, go on the offensive and take the fight deep into enemy’s territory is our bomber forces and, more specifically, our penetrating bomber forces,” he said.
“Bombers will play an enormous role in a conflict with China,” says Venable. ” They will have to.”
“The standoff munitions that are on the B-52s and the B-1s are really excellent munitions, and they’re getting better over time. The B-2 is more freefall-based, but it has the ability to penetrate the airspace, go in and strike targets, because of its stealth coating.”
A new stealth bomber, which will be able to slip inside territories, is in the pipeline.
The B-21 will bring next-generation technology, but many of the features are currently classified.
One of the less glamorous advantages will be its tougher skin, Venable says.
“The stealth coating on the B-21 is going to be much higher than it is for the B-2. When the B-2 flies through a rainstorm or hits a lot of bugs—and I don’t mean to make fun of this idea—or anytime something impacts the skin of that airplane, they have to go in and repair it so that it sustains its stealth faculties.”
Currently, the Air Force is slated to pick up 100 B-21s when they finally start rolling off the production line—expected sometime before the end of the decade.
But for many, the B-21 can’t come soon enough. Generally, defense analysts agree that the U.S. current bomber fleet—like the air force in general—is old, tired, and too small.
Dynamic force employment helps that fleet go a little further.
“The U.S. bomber force is small. It’s historically small right now,” says Walton.
The B-1 fleet is also worn out.
Walton says, “The aircraft type was used extensively in operations in Afghanistan and throughout the broader Middle East over the past decade, operating in the manner in which you would loiter over the battlefield and deliver large numbers of munitions.”
It was very successful in that role, and B-1s were equipped with a targeting pod to enable them to effectively play the role of close support aircraft. But the reality is it has taken a toll on the aircraft airframe, and the overall readiness of that fleet has declined.”
The Air Force is now considering cannibalizing parts from those aircraft to maximize the readiness of the other bombers, says Walton. “Whether Congress will agree with that plan remains to be seen.”
Gunzinger also says that basing the bombers on the mainland has benefits.
“Guam just kind of lacks the infrastructure needed to make maintain some of our crews fully mission capable,” he says. “So there was some decrease in their readiness by maintaining their long term presence in Guam.”
Venable agrees that the new strategy helps the aging fleet by preserving the airframes and saves on deployment time, and ops tempo.
But Venable is worried the math doesn’t look too good—especially when the concept of mission-capable rates is applied.
“Our actual total numbers of operational bombers come out to roughly 115,” he says. “When you apply mission capable rates to that those numbers you only have approximately 70 total bombers available on any given day that can go out and execute the mission.”
With a 30 hour round-trip from the United States to China, Venable says that means a lower number of sorties.
In theory, the arrival of the B-21 will refill the ramps and improve the numbers, says Venable.
“The Air Force is hoping they will be able to acquire a fleet of 100 of those platforms while sustaining the vast majority of B-52s in the lineup that are flying today. And if they’re able to do that, then they’ll have the arsenal they need to go forward.”
But he worries that history may repeat itself, noting that originally, the Air Force expected B-2 bombers. Just 20 were made.
In addition to the B-21, the Air Force is also working on next-generation weapons to mount on their bombers.
“We really do need fifth-generation weapons to go with our next-generation platforms,” says Gunzinger. “Because China’s in Russia’s air, integrated air defense systems are increasingly effective against individual weapons, as well as aircraft themselves.”