War Stories

B-52, Where Are You?

Why the Pentagon doesn’t want you to know its bombers finally work.

Two decades ago in the Washington Monthly, I quipped that U.S. bombers were becoming so few that eventually they would be named after states, like battleships. So, guess what: The Air Force now names its B-2 stealth bombers after states. There’s a B-2 christened the Spirit of Georgia, another the Spirit of Alaska, and so on—with no danger of running out of names, because B-2 production stopped at 21. Today, the United States has just 183 bombers in its entire arsenal, versus more than 75,000 at the peak of World War II. Currently, the Pentagon plans to spend a gasp-inducing $320 billion on thousands of new fighter jets, but has nothing budgeted for new bombers for at least another decade; the Air Force actually says the Kennedy-era B-52 bomber will remain in service until 2037—when any still capable of getting airborne will be 80 years old.

The withering away of the bomber corps reflects planning assumptions a quarter-century old. Then, the thinking was that precision-guided munitions delivered from low altitude by jet fighters would take over nearly all conventional bombing roles. As recently as a few months before 9/11, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the mothballing of 30 B-1 bombers on the theory that they’d never be used in a modern, fighter-dominated air war anyway. Pentagon planners assumed that bombers would play a secondary role while low-flying fighters put the smart explosives on the target.

Instead, unexpected technical breakthroughs resulted in extremely accurate munitions that can be dropped from high altitude by bombers, at less cost and risk than using low-flying fighters. The result has been that during the Afghanistan and second Iraq campaigns, most of the air punch has been delivered by a handful of the remaining bombers. Some 80 percent of the bombs dropped during the U.S. seizure of Afghanistan fell from bombers; the share dropped on Iraq since March 2003 is nearly as high. Though bombers have in this decade turned out to be far more important to U.S. military action than Pentagon strategists expected, the government still plans to invest fantastic amounts of money in fighter planes that would be used mainly to drop bombs.

Accuracy has always been the drawback of heavy bombers. During World War II, even daylight bombing could hit only within a mile or so of a target. U.S. bombers did extensive damage to Germany and Japan, but rarely destroyed the specific targets they were sent against, except when firebombing entire cities. By the Vietnam War, bomber accuracy had improved to a few hundred feet: good enough to smash a factory, but insufficient to hit a bridge, a specific building within a complex, or a tank or artillery piece engaged in battle. Vietnam-era bomber accuracy seemed the limit of what could be accomplished by planes flying at high altitude using bombsights and wind calculations.

So, military engineers began to design smart bombs that would be delivered from fighter planes at low altitude. All relied on some variation of the fighter pilot actually seeing the target and maintaining a view while the smart bomb flew. By the late 1980s, fighter-delivered smart bombs had become accurate enough to hit a bridge or specific building. There were two drawbacks to fighter-delivered smart munitions, though. First, the weapons had onboard engines—since low-altitude release requires powered flight—and complex guidance devices, which pushed their cost to as much as $1 million apiece. Second, fighters delivering smart bombs usually must fly straight and level, exposing themselves to ground fire.

In the late 1990s, technical trends changed the picture. First, satellite guidance from the global positioning system became effective and inexpensive. A bomb called the JDAM was developed that locates itself in three-dimensional space using GPS signals, and continuously corrects its position via satellite guidance as it falls. First dropped in 1999 during the NATO campaign to force the Yugoslavian army out of Kosovo, the JDAM proved almost eerily accurate, reliably striking within about 10 feet of its target. And because JDAMs have no engines—little fins adjust the bomb’s position—these munitions aren’t expensive by military standards, about $30,000 each. Other advances, like the development of tracking devices that work at high altitude, made bombers even more attractive. Suddenly lumbering, high-altitude bombers could do what only low-flying fighters with crack pilots had been able to accomplish, putting bombs exactly on the aim point. And the bombers could do it much cheaper, with much less risk of being shot down.

Bombers dropping JDAMs did the heavy lifting of the 2003 attack on Iraq. The result was one of the greatest technical successes in military history—thousands of targets hit righton the nose, with only a few errant bombs that struck civilian areas, and zero combat losses as the bombers flew well above the range of ground fire. At one point during a battle in Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers beamed the location of some Taliban up to a B-52, which dropped JDAMs exactly on the Taliban unit less than 1,000 feet from American forces. The idea that a high-altitude bomber could conduct close-air support—aiding troops in battle without accidentally hit the good guys—would have been considered nonsense by Air Force planners just a decade ago. In the Afghanistan and second Iraq campaigns, a few dozen bombers did the work tacticians assumed would require hundreds of fighter planes.

Yet the Pentagon plans a breathtaking new investment in fighter planes, while doing naught but study what type of bomber might be built decades in the future. One reason is that the emergence of the accurate bomber just wasn’t in anyone’s playbook. From Air Force pioneer Billy Mitchell on, air-power advocates kept promising high-altitude bombing would win wars, allow “surgical strikes,” and so on. When this hadn’t happened by the 1990s, the Air Force seemed to admit defeat and gave up on bombers for conventional war. Suddenly, precision bombing works, but the message has yet to sink in.

There are other factors at play. One is that almost two decades of lobbying and logrolling stand behind that $320 billion fighter purchase plan. The fix is in with key congressional committees, and the pork has been elaborately scheduled for division among constituents and congressional districts. The aerospace contracting lobby does not want any change in the copious money flow now authorized for new fighters.

Air Force senior leadership is thick with former fighter jocks, who find the new F-22 superfighter and its companion multiservice F-35 sexier than bombers. Piloting modern bombers is not meaningfully different from flying Boeing 737s for Southwest Airlines—there’s no nailed-to-your-seat maneuvering, no sense of rocketing through the sky. Air Force leaders know that a new bomber designed for satellite-guided weapons would likely be a vanilla aircraft—a modified Boeing airliner could fill the role. In Afghanistan and the second Iraq campaign, bombers have mainly “orbited,” or turned lazy circles, until the time came to release self-guided munitions. Maybe a remote-controlled drone platform could do that, and the Air Force is not eager to hasten the replacement of pilots by data links.

It’s true that the Pentagon does need some new fighters with updated technology. The F-22 is head and shoulders better than any other fighter ever built, while the F-35 would allow three services to replace their radar-visible fighters with a stealthy plane. But after $320 billion is spent building hundreds of F-22s and thousands of F-35s, how would they be used? Only a few would be employed in the interceptor role of shooting down enemy fighters, since no adversary nation is even attempting to manufacture fighters or air-to-air missiles capable of contesting those the United States already has. Plans call for the majority of the new F-22s and F-35s to be employed mainly for dropping smart bombs from low altitude. That is, they will do at fantastic expense what new satellite-guided devices from bombers can do relatively cheaply. This is why the Pentagon has not been crowing much about the success of its bombers above Afghanistan and Iraq: If that were understood, the case for spending $320 billion on smart-bombing fighters would fade.