24 June 2010

Big Air Force Cuts Considered

The U.S. military is seriously considering retiring all 66 of its Reagan era B1-B bombers. The B-1B has a far larger payload than the B-2 stealth bomber and the B-52, can travel at supersonic speeds and is highly maneuverable. The trouble is that the U.S. military no longer needs those capabilities.

For missions where any aircraft or anti-aircraft fire are possible, the F-22 stealth fighter, B-2 stealth bomber and armed drone aircraft are better suited to the task.

For missions where opposition force threats are unlikely, the B-1B's big payload doesn't matter when the amount of bombs that you need to drop has declined dramatically.

In World War II it could take 9,000 bombs to hit a target the size of an aircraft shelter. In Vietnam, 300. Today we can do it with one laser-guided munition from an F-117.

- USAF, Reaching Globally, Reaching Powerfully: The United States Air Force in the Gulf War (Sept. 1991), p. 55.

D]uring the peak six years of the Vietnam war, 6.7 million tons of bombs were dropped. That was the same rate they were dropped during the major bombing campaigns of World War II. But in eight years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, only 42,000 tons have been dropped. Thus, while in the past, a million tons were dropped a year, for the war on terror, less than 6,000 tons a year were dropped. That means a reduction of over 99 percent. Even when you adjust for the different number of U.S. troops involved, that's still over 97 percent fewer bombs dropped. . . .

[D]uring Vietnam the average bomb size was close to 1,000 pounds, now it's less than half that. Weapons like the hundred pound Hellfire missile are more popular with the ground troops, than the 2,000 pound bomb that was so often used in Vietnam.

Most of the bombing is now being done in Afghanistan. In Iraq, less than a ton of bombs a month are being dropped. In Afghanistan, it's over 100 tons a month. In Afghanistan, this tonnage has declined nearly 40 percent in the last year. Partly due to the greater use of smaller bombs and missiles, and partly due to the greater use of civilians as human shields by the Taliban. . . . About a hundred civilians are killed each month in Afghanistan. Most are killed by the Taliban, but 10-20 percent are killed by American smart bombs, missiles and shells.

From here.

The twenty-four ton payload of a B-52 (vs. 60 tons for a B-1B) is plenty to drop smart bombs from high altitudes in an environment where no opposition forces are capable of shooting back and the bombs dropped are almost certain to hit their target without spending much money to keep the planes going.

Despite being an average of 47 years old, the average B-52 has flown just 16,000 hours of its 28,000 flight hour useful life. Its simple mission doesn't take much training (unlike air to air combat training for fighter pilots) and unlike transport planes it doesn't need to fly in peacetime.

By the time that the B-52 fleet has enough hours to be retired, it may make sense to replace a plane with such a simple mission (now that its more difficult missions are handled by other aircraft in the fleet) with a drone aircraft rather than a new manned bomber.

Fighter Aircraft Cuts

Force structure cuts might also extend to the air arm’s much cherished but currently under-utilized fighter force. The service already plans to early retire 250 fighters this year, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said last month; gone are 112 F-15s, 134 F-16s, and 3 A-10s.

From here.


Michael Malak said...

Carter was ridiculed for trying to cancel the B-1. That's because he knew the B-2 would quickly obsolete it, but he wasn't allowed to say anything about the then top-secret B-2. So Reagan resurrected the B-1 and scored major political points at the time.

What a waste.

Dave Barnes said...


"Today we can do it with one laser-guided munition from an F-117"

No, we can't. The F-117 has been retired.