By George Friedman
The U.S. Department of Defense has released a picture of a planned next-generation bomber, the B-21. Very few details were released but from the picture we can see that it is an airplane, and since it is called a bomber it will also carry bombs. We assume that these bombs will be precision-guided munitions, guided to their target by sensors and a guidance system located on the plane. The bomber will reportedly be able to carry out global missions, and it will be stealthy, which means difficult to detect by radar and other sensor systems. This will allow it to survive in a hostile environment. That is a good feature to have considering each aircraft will cost about half a billion dollars.
Half a billion dollars is a lot of money, and with a hundred planes planned, the total cost will be $50 billion, not counting overruns. The issue with this bomber is therefore two-fold. First, can it actually survive enemy air defenses, since each plane shot down would be 1 percent of the total strike force? Second, is this the most effective way to deliver munitions around the world? Wars are constant, and in due course the odds are that one of these wars will involve countries with sophisticated air defense systems. Is the B-21 the most rational choice for delivering explosives to these countries? Or put another way, will it work? To answer that, we must first consider the reason manned, long-range (strategic) bombers exist.
The manned bomber originated as a tool of mass warfare. During both World Wars, weapons were extraordinarily imprecise. Thousands of bullets had to be fired to kill a single enemy soldier. In order to fire those thousands of bullets, armies had to consist of masses of soldiers. The soldiers had to be equipped with a vast amount of weapons and all the other equipment necessary to sustain vast armies in the field.
Therefore, the battlefield expanded to include not only the battle line, but also the factories that produced the means of war. The ability to destroy a tank was valuable. Destroying a tank factory was far more valuable. Destroying refineries that produced the fuel to move tanks, planes and everything else was invaluable. Therefore, while the battle line was critical, the destruction of factories and the workers who manned them was even more important. Industrial scale warfare required destruction of the enemy’s war-making industry.
The manned strategic bombers were introduced to destroy the industry, infrastructure and labor force that allowed the enemy military to fight. Their primary defect was that they were wildly inaccurate. Early in World War II, the British launched strikes at German targets. They were off by so many miles that German intelligence couldn’t figure out what they were trying to hit. As with riflemen on the ground, the solution was masses of aircraft, since the more bombs were dropped the more likely they were to hit the target. The attacks on strategic targets became thousands of airstrikes on cities with the intent to destroy a factory, but which resulted in obliterating much of the town.
War became an attempt to destroy the factories that produced weapons, and the means became masses of bombs dropped in the statistical likelihood of hitting the target. The air campaign became wildly inefficient and costly. About 50 percent of aircrews were casualties in the campaigns over Germany with its concentrated anti-aircraft fire. The development of the atomic bomb made this form of warfighting more efficient. Rather than a thousand bombers visiting a city multiple times, a single plane destroyed the city and the factory with a single bomb that compensated for inaccuracy with enormous explosive power.
Obviously, wars could not continue on this basis, yet wars did continue. The mathematics of industrial warfare had to shift in order to render nuclear weapons irrelevant as a means of war, if not of terror. The result was the introduction of precision-guided munitions (PGM) that had sensors that allowed them to hit targets precisely and with a high degree of probability. Introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, they evolved in sophistication until the probability of hitting a target rose about 50 percent, making thousand-bomber attacks on cities pointless. A handful of bombers could achieve the same end.
The same revolution in warfare that created the PGM also created heat- and radar-guided anti-air missiles, launched from the ground or air. The problem of mass warfare was solved, but the means for delivering PGM to the target was complicated by PGM themselves. Planes were detected by radar and heat emissions, so the problem became creating planes that could not be detected by those means – the origin of stealth.
Building planes that could not be detected was enormously expensive. But it allowed air warfare to continue. Norman Augustine, a defense expert, once predicted that one day the U.S. would be able to afford only one plane, with the Navy and Air Force each using it every other day, and the Marines getting it every Feb. 29. His point was that the cost of keeping aircraft alive in any airspace was going to far outweigh the cost of building defense. Systems for detecting stealthy planes would always be cheaper than creating stealthy planes. I used senility as an analogy in a book I wrote in the 1990s called “The Future of War.” Planes don’t become obsolete. They grow senile until the cost of keeping them going cripples the military’s ability to do other things.
The B-21 seems to be a dramatic step toward senility. Consider its purpose – to fly half-way around the world to drop PGM to destroy a target. The issue is whether there are other cheaper and safer means for accomplishing the same thing. Cruise missiles do the same thing, but they lack range and speed. But there are new generations of hypersonic missiles (missiles that travel at 10 times the speed of sound). Assuming that Mach 20 could be achieved with suitable range, the same ordnance could be delivered in less time and with less risk than a PGM flown to the vicinity of the target.
Stealth technology is inherently imperfect. Planes give off heat and they are not invisible. Something can be designed to spot them. If a B-21 goes down, not only is a crew, half a billion dollars and 1 percent of the strike force lost, but technology falls into enemy hands. In war there is attrition, and the B-21 assumes that attrition in future wars will be far below that of past wars, like Vietnam. That may be true, but it is not necessarily the case, and that’s quite a bet to make. Most important, the plane will have to maneuver. The fragility of a manned aircraft’s occupants limits its ability to maneuver.
These problems do not exist for a notional long-range hypersonic missile. The loss of technology is still there, but it is possible to imagine a self-destruct system that obliterates the missile. You can’t do that with a manned bomber. This is a weapon for a military that expects minimal attrition. It assumes that the enemy will not be able to impose, say, a 10 percent attrition rate per sortie. It is a bet that one in 10 aircraft can’t be destroyed by a smart and technically capable enemy. But if the enemy can, then a $50 billion strategic capability will dissolve with astonishing speed.
This new bomber is not needed to fight light infantry forces. The B-52 or the A-10 provide that capability. And it is being built to engage an enemy whose capabilities at the time of battle are completely unknown. It is either being designed for an unknowable environment or it is a miracle plane. And it probably isn’t miraculous.