CSAF details bomber phase-in plan

The top Air Force commander said the new bomber will handle both nuclear and conventional missions -- eventually.

The Air Force’s new long range bomber will initially enter the fleet only capable of handling conventional ordnance, but then the service plans to certify it for nuclear weapons a little further down the line. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told House lawmakers Wednesday that the service is planning to phase in its “dual capabilities” to save money and, if possible, get its new bombers quicker.

Schwartz was asked about the bomber plans during the House Armed Services Committee’s latest marathon hearing about the dangers of potentially deep DoD budget cuts, the first at which he and the three other service chiefs appeared. Each one, in his turn, repeated the cautions that subordinates, industry advocates and observers all have given — that the implications of budget sequestration are just too horrific to contemplate.

Schwartz, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert; and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos all gave the performances for which they’d been invited: Each one metaphorically rolled around on the pitch like a European soccer star grabbing his knee, trying to coax a call from the ref.

The question now emerging is, just who is the ref? No one in the military-industrial-congressional complex needs to be convinced about the dangers of deep DoD budget reductions. In fact, it was congressional leaders themselves who agreed to the debt ceiling deal with the White House that primed the deadfall mechanism that leaders keep saying would clobber the Pentagon.

At any rate, once the chiefs’ warnings all were in the record Wednesday, the session resolved itself into a standard House hearing, with members quizzing the brass about their various parochial interests.

It was in this context that Schwartz was asked about the bomber, which he said remains a top priority for the Air Force. The goal, he said, was to design, build and field the airplanes as quickly and cheaply as possible, and once they were making their way into the fleet, then confirm they’d be able to take on the Air Force’s airborne nuclear deterrence mission.

Nuclear certification would begin with an eye toward the end of the service lives of the service’s B-2 and B-52 bombers, Schwartz said. The process would be “quite elaborate,” he said, involving electromagnetic pulse hardening and other intense testing, which is why it would likely be comparatively expensive and time-consuming. Schwartz assured lawmakers the bombers would be built from the start to handle the nuclear mission, but just not tested and certified for it right away. The goal is for them to be ready for nuclear missions as the B-52s and B-2s leave service.

Implicit in Schwartz’s assurances was that the Air Force can ultimately build its new bomber and, more basically, that the U.S. decides to keep its nuclear triad. As we saw at the Naval Submarine League conference, there are high-level talks between the White House and Strategic Command about the future of the full triad, and even the prospect of a common future Navy and Air Force ballistic missile. In Austerity America, the Air Force might have a hard time trying to make the case for a new missile and a new bomber, especially given the procurement “bow wave” forecast as its bomber, the KC-46A tanker and new F-35As all go into simultaneous full production.

Fine, the Air Force might say — we don’t want a dumb ‘ol missile with the stinky ‘ol Navy. There’s a case to be made that the best deal for the U.S. is to have a nuclear dyad that comprises Air Force bombers and Navy ballistic missile submarines. A “dual purpose” bomber gives you more bang for your buck, bomber types might say, because it can take both weekend turkey-shoot missions dropping conventional bombs (such as Libya) as well as keep on standby for Armageddon. All a land-based missile does is sit there hoping it’ll never be fired.

It’s all still highly theoretical, as Schwartz himself admitted to a lawmaker frustrated by the cloudy way ahead: “It’s not final,” Schwartz said, “until it’s in the president’s budget.”

What do you think?