12 January 2006

Air Force Changes War Plane Plans

The Air Force had originally planned to retire its 52 F-117 stealth fighter-bombers in 2011. Now it wants to retire 10 in 2007 and 42 in 2008. It also wants to cut its fleet of B-52 bombers from 96 to 54, and to cancel an upgrade of B-52 electronics systems. In exchange, it wants to buy four more F-22s.

While retiring the legacy F-117, which shares one of the same primary purposes as the F-22, of using stealth to fly into hostile territory in the first days of a conflict and drop a small quantity of bombs on key targets, a few years earlier than planed in order to free up $1 billion to buy a few more F-22s which will be in the Air Force fleet for decades to come may make sense, retiring half of the B-52 fleet (which would save $681 million) does not.

The B-52 and F-22 have purposes as diametrically opposite as any two warplanes could possibly have, and the experience of the U.S. military over the past several decades has shown far more need for the role filled by the B-52, to drop large volumes of bombs or to serve as a cruise missile launching site, than for the role filled by the F-22, which is to engage in stealth strike missions and air to air combat with fighter aircraft. Many commentators have noted the need for more capability similar to that of the B-52, rather than less, and suggested buying a new "transport bomber" (or "interim bomber") to provide a relatively low cost, long range, high payload, low threat environment war plane for launching cruise missiles and dropping large loads of bombs.

Incidentally, it takes about 95 airmen, on average to run a B-52, even though the flight crew is far smaller.


Kyle said...

Do you really think the future war theatre needs that many B-52's though?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Quite possibly. The key role that a B-52 offers is its cruise missile carrying capacity (we are treaty bound not to use other bombers to carry cruise missiles). In a situation such as a Taiwan invasion, B-52s could be dispatched much more quickly than ships could, and cruise missiles are very effective at dealing with ships, port facilities and the like. B-52s are preferrable to bombing inland targets from fighters on aircraft carriers or deploying cruisers and destroyers as cruise missile bases.

Also, given that we have some many B-52s in the Air Force which are some much cheaper to keep than buying new planes, if we have too many the right step is to convert some to electronic warfare planes (which are similar in size and also don't need air to air combat abilities) which are in terribly short supply right now, rather than simply scuttling them.