In major conflicts in a post-Cold War world, the United States may find air bases close to the fighting unavailable or vulnerable to enemy attack—especially by ballistic missiles. Yet the U.S. Air Force is investing billions of dollars in two new types of tactical fighter aircraft (the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter) that require access to such bases. In contrast, the Air Force will not commence research and development on a new long-range bomber until 2013 and will not begin producing the aircraft until 2034. Under the Air Force’s plan, the B-52s will be more than 80 years old before new bombers replace them. The already-aged B-52s are even now vulnerable to enemy air defenses and must either stand outside them to fire their munitions or have the protection of fighter aircraft.
Heavy bombers can carry heavier payloads over much longer ranges than can fighters and can operate from less-vulnerable bases in theaters that are farther away from the fighting or even from bases in the United States. The decline of the long-range bomber force comes at the very time that substantial portions of U.S. military power deployed overseas are returning to the United States. No matter what type of foreign policy the United States adopts in the future, it will have to possess the capabilities to project power abroad. If the United States needs to project power, that will have to be done from the U.S. homeland. The decline also comes at a time when long-range bombers appear to be more survivable, because of stealth technologies, and more capable militarily, because of precision-guided munitions, than they have been at any time since the onset of the Cold War. Also, bombers have been and will continue to be a vital part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. In a nuclear crisis, their advantage is that they can be recalled and missiles cannot.
The Air Force is giving priority to investment in tactical fighters because the generals who run the service are preponderantly tactical fighter pilots. Their bias is indicated by the increasingly lopsided ratio of dollars invested in tactical fighters to dollars invested in bombers, which balloons from slightly less than 5 to 1 in 1999 to more than 30 to 1 in 2003. The Air Force should cancel one of its two new tactical aircraft—the F-22 air superiority fighter, which was designed during the Cold War and is unneeded after its end. A small portion of the savings should be used immediately to start the development of a new, affordable long-range bomber.