In an opinion piece for the website Defence News earlier this week, retired US Air Force (USAF) General John Michael Loh focused on what he described as the crisis in “America’s bomber force which is too small and getting smaller”.
He recalled that the USAF had more than 400 bombers, including the B-1, the B-2, and the B-52, at the end of the Cold War in 1989 and ahead of the Gulf War in 1990.
However, Loh noted, after the proposed cuts in the USAF’s fiscal budget request for 2021, “there will be only 140” US bombers, which he argued remain “the preferred weapon system […] in the vast and most-stressed region of the Indo-Pacific because of their long range and huge payload capacity”.
According to the author, the planned cut is “curious” given that senior USAF officials earlier called for more bomber squadrons, with the Air Force chief of staff testifying on the push for "200 bombers, of which 145 would be [new heavy aircraft] B-21s”.
The U.S. Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bomber could fly as early as December 2021. pic.twitter.com/mocvM842GN— Space Corps US Ⓥ Fan (@SpaceCorpsUS) January 3, 2020
Loh touted bombers as “the coin of the realm” which he asserted play “dual strategic roles” and “provide flexible deterrence with their nuclear capability, forcing adversaries to think twice before starting an attack”.
He added that bombers also conduct “the brunt of conventional operations” and that these warplanes’ “long range and on-station times, combined with huge weapons loads, make them the weapon of choice for combatant commanders in both the Middle East and Pacific regions”.
In light of this, the author expressed concern that among the 140 bombers that are expected to remain in the USAF, “only the 20 stealthy B-2s have the ability to penetrate modern air defences to strike critical targets — a priority of the National Defence Strategy”.
These bombers, however, are “on a path to early retirement” because the 2021 Financial Year (FY) budget request stipulates cancelling the B-2’s Defensive Management System Modernisation programme, Loh noted, warning that stopping modernisation of the B-2s is a “risky” move.
He concluded by warning that after the USAF “entered the new decade with the smallest bomber force in its history”, the FY21 budget request may “erode” this force even further.
“There comes a point where doing more with less does not work, especially with B-21s not available in numbers for several years. It is time to recognise the gravity of the situation and build up the nation’s bomber force. A good 'plan B' does not exist without bombers”, General Loh pointed out.
His remarks came after the military news website Defence Blog cited USAF Chief of Staff General David Goldfein as saying in September 2019 that they were considering to reduce the size of the B-1B Lancer bomber fleet to save money and “then flow that money into doing some key things within the bomber portfolio”.