A Bomber for the 21st Century, Today : B-2 Will Update Our Strategic Triad--and That’s the Bargain

<i> Gen. John T. Chain Jr. is commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command. </i>

The B-2 stealth bomber has now made its first flight--a major step in the complicated process of weapons-system acquisition. Because of the long time from conception to reality of a new system, especially true when nuclear capability is involved, many opinions are offered as to the potential value of the system. This is now the case with the B-2. For that reason, I want to review the facts of why the B-2 is necessary for the nation.

For more than 30 years, the nation has depended on a triad of strategic forces--a mix of manned bombers and land- and sea-based missiles. This robust posture confounds any potential attacker and provides the United States with a wide range of options and capability. Each part of the triad offers distinct and complementary advantages. (See accompanying chart.)

Of the three elements of the triad, the bomber provides the most potent and unique combination of range, heavy payload, accuracy and mix of weapons. Most important, the crew in the cockpit makes the bomber a wide-ranging, recallable and reusable system of enormous flexibility.

Why, then, the B-2? Under secret development for over 10 years, the stealth bomber continues a program of strategic modernization that has been “blueprinted” across both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Each leg of the triad, in order to be more effective or reliable, has been improved. For the bomber force, the B-2 is a sophisticated approach made possible by a technologically advanced America. The B-2 provides all the desirable qualities of a manned and penetrating bomber well into the 21st Century.


The B-2 is compatible with strategic arms limitation initiatives that seem achievable in the 1990s. Both sides recognize that fast-flying ballistic missiles are the most destabilizing weapons and, therefore, both sides seek maximum restrictions on their numbers. On the other hand, each side understands the stabilizing, non-first-strike nature of the penetrating bomber.

Yet our current bomber force is, on average, a quarter of a century old and being retired rapidly. Of the 372 aircraft remaining, 48 FB-111s are slated for transfer to the tactical air forces and 61 B-52s are dedicated to a conventional role. (Fourteen of these aircraft will phase out of service this year.) Most disturbing is the fact that a large number of B-52s, most with air-launched cruise missile capability, are expected to go to the boneyard over the next several years. The few B-52s remaining will move from a penetrating role to a standoff mission (or a conventional role), leaving only the B-1 to penetrate in the mid-to late-'90s. With the addition of at least 132 B-2s, the synergism of the triad will be maintained and the highly developed and expensive Soviet air defense network will be much less effective.

For a deterrent force of this value, the B-2 investment will necessarily be substantial. However, “sticker shock” assertions require analysis. There are useful methods to fairly portray the B-2’s affordability. For example, with respect to cost per potential warhead delivered, the B-2 force is about equal to the B-1 force and actually less than some modernized ballistic-missile systems.

In relation to the just acquired B-1, the B-2 cost is about 25% greater: That’s money well spent to buy an enduring and unique nuclear and conventional capability.


On balance, we should spend for defense only what we must to ensure our security. If we prudently invest and create strategic leverage in our favor, that’s good. The nuclear and conventional combat capability of our strategic bomber force provides us with such leverage. Long-range bomber striking power--the ability to reach anywhere in the world in a few hours--is integral to future security. With its low observable characteristics and modern bomber capabilities of intercontinental range, the B-2 can respond with a full spectrum of retaliatory capability. It can deal with terrorist acts or global conflict.

I need a warplane whose performance, reliability and maintainability will meet the demanding needs validated over a decade of development and experience. Continued prudence will be essential to manage the pace of manufacturing, testing and deployment of this bomber. The B-2 is too important to be driven by artificial timeliness or unrealistic goals. It will be in the employ of the nation for many years.

With the rollout of the B-2 last November, and now its first flight, a major milestone in aviation history has taken place. In retrospect, the first flight of the B-2 will be viewed as a revolutionary moment as important as the transition from propeller-driven to jet aircraft. We will learn much along the way as we work with this exciting new bomber.

Let us now reap the benefits of long years of effort, expense and bipartisan support. The B-2 is here and it makes eminently good sense for our nation.



Bomber ICBM SLBM Day-to-day alert rate 20/30% 98% 50% Alert rate after 48 hours 95% 99% 80% Response time--to launch Minutes Minutes Varies --to target Hours 30 20 Recallable after launch Yes No No Flexibility--pre-launch Much Limited Limited --post launch Much None None Payload Heavy Light Light Reusable Yes No No Accuracy Very good Good/Very Good Good Man-in-the-loop--pre-launch Yes Yes Yes --post-launch Yes No No

SOURCE: Strategic Air Command