Steven Den Beste takes the Air Force’s aircraft procurement strategy to the woodshed and argues that the idea that we need more stealthy multi-mission aircraft is wrong. He argues that aircraft such as the A-10 and long-range heavy capacity bombers are what’s needed for future conflict.
Indeed, he’s correct. As cool as the B-2 is, it is expensive and horrendously difficult to maintain. It has a limited bomb capacity, and the stealth features are of little use in a place like Afghanistan where SAMs or enemy fighters are of little concern.
The Air Force seems to still be geared towards fighting the Soviets with stealth. The new war will be about the ability to deliver lots of ordinance with great accuracy in a small amount of time and coordinating more closely with ground forces. Granted, it isn’t as sexy as B-2 strikes or winning wars without hitting the ground, but it does have the advantage of being a strategy that won three major wars. The Army has already adapted to a new way of combat – the Air Force needs to follow.
UPDATE: Wind Rider says that Den Beste is wrong and the Air Force is prepared for future warfare. He argues that the superior survivability of the B-2 more than justifies the increased support costs. Personally, I think the emphasis on survivability disfavors the B-2 in future combat. I would guess that we’ll start seeing increased use of UCAVs like the X-45B and the Predator used for dangerous assignments like Wild Weasel missions and first-strike interdiction in hostile terrority. However, those technologies are probably a decade away.
Wind Rider does bring up a lot of very good points on the need for general-mission aircraft over specialization. He even knocks down some of Den Beste’s points. However, I think Mr. Den Beste is on to something. He’s approaching things as an engineer would. There’s an old adage that an aircraft is a series of compromises flying in close formation, and it’s a good rule of thumb. Aircraft have to balance the needs of stealth, speed, weight, size, bomb load, and a host of other considerations. Multi-mission aircraft are much more difficult to build because so many compromises have to be made. There’s still room in the arsenal for some specialized aircraft that are designed to do one thing and do it well – which is why the B-52 is still in service after nearly a half-century. The B-52 isn’t stealthy, and isn’t fast, but it’s a stable and proven platform for delivering large amounts of high explosives, smart weapons, or any other kind of bomb anywhere in the world.
What can be taken from both is the need to more closely coordinate between branches of the military towards acheiving an objective. Wars cannot be won entirely on the ground or entirely in the air in the 21st Century. Future conflicts will require the sharing of information and close support of all objectives – something every branch of the military will need to do more of in the future.