A panel of defense analysts on Wednesday urged U.S. lawmakers to develop a fleet of next-generation bombers capable of piercing advanced enemy air defenses.
Their testimony before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee came as the Pentagon is poised to announce which defense contractor will land the potentially $100 billion contract to develop and build as many as 100 of the aircraft as part of the Long Range Strike-Bomber, or LRS-B, program.
A team led by Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the bat-winged B-2 stealth bomber, is squaring off for the work against another headed by Boeing Co., the world's largest aerospace company, and Lockheed Martin Corp., the world's largest defense contractor.
The Air Force wants to buy between 80 and 100 new bombers at no more than $550 million apiece to replace its aging fleet of B-52 Stratofortresses made by Boeing and a least a portion of its B-1 Lancer fleet.
One of the panelists, Robert Elder, a professor at George Mason University and a retired lieutenant general who previously commanded the 8th Air Force, said "100 bombers should be considered the minimum initial procurement quantity." He pointed out that "substantially more aircraft will be needed" to replace the existing B-1 and B-52 fleets.
Elder also cited a Rand Corp. analysis that concluded long-range bombers "are more effective than short-range fighters or missiles for stabilizing a crisis and managing escalation" and recalled the 2013 flight of a pair of B-2s over the Korean peninsula to send a message to the North Korean regime.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, who heads the House Armed Services Seapower and Projections Forces Subcommittee, said he was worried about the increasing age of the bomber fleet, which on average is nearly four decades old.
"The current state of our bomber force is of great concern," he said.
The Air Force has 158 bombers, including 76 B-52s, 63 B-1s and 20 B-2s, Forbes said. Indeed, three generations of airman have flown the B-52 in combat, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and the newest B-52 is more than a half-century old, he said.
"I am concerned about Russia and China rapidly fielding highly capable integrated air defense systems and other anti-access capabilities," he added. "The proliferation of these weapon systems is eroding our ability to perform Long Range Strike with our legacy bomber fleet and stand-off precision weapons, thus diminishing our ability to deter and respond to aggression."
Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, agreed that the next-gen bomber "must be prepared to fight through surface-to-air missiles, electronic and information attack, defending aircraft and unmanned vehicles to access this airspace. Targets will include mobile targets and hardened and deeply buried targets."
She also said the aircraft will need to fly missions beyond 2055 and thus must be able to accommodate new and evolving technologies, including lasers and directed-energy systems (both offensive and defensive), hypersonic missiles and other weapons.
Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 pilot who's now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others have developed sensors and precision-guided defensive weapons that are capable of striking non-stealthy B-52s and B-1s.
What's more, he said, "with the exception of 19 primary mission B-2s, the Air Force's long-range strike force is limited to operating in low-to medium-threat environments. If required to operate from bases that are 1,500 or more miles from target areas, this small B-2 force would generate only ten to twelve strike sorties per day."
Notably, the hearing also came just a week after the leaders of the counterpart panel in the Senate -- including Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island -- blasted Pentagon officials over major discrepancies in recent 10-year cost estimates for the Air Force's new bomber program.