In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, the Strategic Air Command is stepping up efforts to transform itself from the guardian of the nation's nuclear deterrent to the spearhead of its long-range conventional bomber strike force.
At Ellsworth Air Force Base, under the roar of bombers once trained almost exclusively for nuclear war, the service is building the engine of this transformation, a bomber pilot's dream called the Strategic Warfare Center.
Built around a $54-million computer and an electronics-laden training range that stretches across four states, the fledgling warfare center aims to recast the training and tactics of nuclear warriors for a world of non-nuclear, Persian Gulf-style wars.
It is a "Top Gun" facility for bomber crews--a "hotbed of thinkers who can say: 'Hey, maybe there's a better way to do this,' " in the words of Col. Chuck Patrum, a B-52 instructor pilot from the center who led bombing missions over Iraq and Kuwait.
It is also SAC's best hope for securing a role in a "new world order" and the resulting Pentagon budget regimen. Analysts say that, as those realities take hold, there is certain to be a shift away from nuclear programs and toward preparation for non-nuclear conflict.
Nowhere has that political strategy been more evident than in the Air Force's advocacy of the B-2 bomber, the future of which is a subject of debate in Congress. The Air Force has worked hard to promote the radar-eluding plane, which costs $870 million a copy, as a stealthy workhorse for future conventional brush fires.
And, although the B-52 and the B-1 now are alone on the Strategic Warfare Center's training schedule, the B-2 is expected to join the curriculum as soon as it is ready, officials said.
At Ellsworth, a sprawling complex of missile fields, in-flight refueling jets and bombers, the new Air Force tack is immediately evident. At the main gate to this SAC outpost, a freshly painted sign reads: "War Is Our Profession, Peace Is Its Product."
During the Cold War years, when the Strategic Air Command was focused almost exclusively on waging nuclear war--and enforcing deterrence--with the Soviet Union, SAC had a less threatening motto, "Peace Is Our Profession," which better captured the logic of its nuclear-age mission.
In the Persian Gulf War, the Air Force got a fresh reminder of the realities for which it had begun to plan in the late 1980s. And at Ellsworth, everyone--from tacticians to B-1 bomber crews, who were left out of the fray--is toting up the lessons of the war.
As a result of the center's recommendations, the Air Force may seek new funds to equip its bombers with precision-guided weapons. Bomber crews already have begun training designed around the lessons of the Gulf War.
It has been just a year since Gen. Larry D. Welch, then-Air Force chief of staff, urged that service to hone the ability to "reach out and touch someone" with deadly non-nuclear force from bases inside the United States.
Welch called for "an increased emphasis on force-projection capabilities--even more flexible, rapidly responding, precise, lethal forces with global reach."
He cited the growing unpopularity of U.S. bases overseas and the expense of maintaining forces--especially naval forces--that can maintain a continuous presence near every hot spot in the world.
In late April, Gen. Lee Butler, SAC's new leader, told lawmakers that he had spent the opening weeks of his tenure "reassessing the corporate vision that has guided SAC for the 45 years of its existence."
What he found wanting, Butler reported, was a "fundamental restatement of SAC's missions and requirements." In the overhaul now under way, a "conventional triad" of manned bombers, tankers and strategic reconnaissance forces must take its place alongside the nuclear triad--nuclear bombers, land-based and sea-based missiles--that has been SAC's mainstay, Butler said.
The Strategic Warfare Center is to become the driving force behind that change. Starting July 26, the heart of the Strategic Warfare Center, a $54-million computer called the Route Integration Instrumentation System (commonly called RIIS by the military), is to be fully operational. The computer is designed to enable bomber crews to experiment with tactics and to perfect time-tested ones for use against an ever-changing constellation of computer-generated threats. All of this will take place in a 250,000-square-mile test range that stretches over North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.
After the air crews land, the RIIS--connected to a network of electronic trackers scattered across the range--will allow them to replay and dissect their runs with unprecedented accuracy. At that point, the center will become not only a schoolhouse for tactics--as Brig. Gen. Thad A. Wolf, commander of the Strategic Warfare Center, calls it--but a testing ground in which students will be able to survive their mistakes.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Strategic Warfare Center, however. Some see it as little more than a ploy designed to drum up missions that could justify a costly force of manned penetrating bombers.
Some also believe the delivery of nuclear weapons--the mission for which these bombers were actually designed--could be done more cheaply and nearly as effectively by submarine missiles and by cruise missiles fired from aircraft that fly outside the limits of air defenses.
"The Air Force is desperately trying to preserve the long-range bomber force at a time when its traditional nuclear mission is suddenly endangered," said Jeffrey Record, a defense analyst with BDM International Inc., a Washington think tank. "Now they've got to come up with a new mission and, at least in the case of the B-2, I think they're overselling it a bit."
Indeed, the commander of the Strategic Warfare Center acknowledges that marketing the conventional uses of bombers both inside and outside the Air Force is a key function of the center.
"The more we can convince an internal and external audience of the utility of long-range strike capability, the more these systems will be weaved into theater commanders' strike plans," Wolf said. "You just have to keep selling" the capabilities you have to offer, he added.
Center officials hope that traveling tacticians from the unit will be able to persuade theater commanders--the Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopfs of the future--that SAC bombers would bring abilities to their operations that the commanders may not have considered.
From strategic positions inside Schwarzkopf's air war planning staff for the Persian Gulf War, a handful of tacticians from the center have lobbied for the widest possible use of the B-52, said Maj. Probe Thompson, an instructor pilot and tactics specialist who spent 14 weeks helping to plan the air war in the Gulf.
"Maybe this is what you've heard advertised," Thompson said they told commanders of Operation Desert Storm, many of whom remembered the B-52 as the inaccurate flying terror machine of Vietnam War. "But we said: 'Let us tell you what they can really do.' "
As a result, the venerable B-52 was sent after industrial complexes in Baghdad and after mobile Scud launchers in western Iraq and southern Kuwait, as well as traditional targets such as troops dispersed over large areas. Both were tasks that required accuracy far greater than the B-52 demonstrated in the Vietnam War.
Planners also devised procedures by which the B-52 targets could be changed quickly to adapt to circumstances. While target changes in the past have taken two days, tactics experts here say that the speeded-up process enabled planners to shift a Gulf War bomber crew's target within hours--often after crews had begun flying their missions.
"We ended up using the B-52 in ways that we had never tried before," Thompson said. In all, the B-52, which crews call the BUFF (big, ugly, fat fella), flew 1,617 missions from as far away as Spain, Britain and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and from as nearby as Jidda, Saudi Arabia. And the planes dropped 24,575 tons of ordnance on targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
The B-1 bomber did not participate in the Gulf War because it was grounded for all but nuclear missions from Dec. 19, 1990, until Feb. 6, 1991. By the time the suspension, which was ordered because of engine problems, was lifted, tacticians on Schwarzkopf's staff had concluded that the continuing threat from Iraqi antiaircraft guns would make the B-1, which typically flies at altitudes within the guns' short range, too vulnerable for use over Iraq and Kuwait.
Inside the Air Force, the Strategic Warfare Center sends training teams out, as it did before the air war in the Gulf began, to persuade sometimes-reluctant bomber crews that the new, more flexible ways of thinking are necessary.
"Our job was to open the minds up and warn our guys, 'Do not be driven by a proven tactic,' " Thompson said.
Many of the "proven tactics" that have been hardest for bomber crews to give up are those that have sprung up around the nuclear mission. As Soviet air defenses grew increasingly dependent on sophisticated, sky-sweeping radar and high-altitude surface-to-air missiles, American bomber crews began hugging the terrain.
Moreover, as bomber crews trained increasingly for the solitary job of delivering nuclear weapons, they shunned the hurly-burly of conventional theater operations, in which swarms of fighters, electronics-jamming aircraft and even helicopters would join the fray.
The prospect that they will be called upon to fight as part of a larger, non-nuclear strike force will demand greater cooperation--and flexibility--than that for which many nuclear bombing crews have been trained, several experts said.
With the lessons of the Persian Gulf War in mind, the Strategic Warfare Center is devising a round of follow-up tests to demonstrate the B-1's ability to carry out conventional bombing missions.