Did the Obama administration effectively drop the Next Generation Bomber as part of its arms control strategy? That is the theory posited by Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, the Air Force's top Global Strike commander and 8th Air Force chief, at a breakfast meeting yesterday.
Defense Secretary Gates had indicated the bomber's fate was uncertain back in late January. Gates told Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D-In.), that an earlier speech he had made in support of the bomber was delivered "at a time when the economic outlook was rather different than it is now and the prospects for the defense budget perhaps different. We need to look at all of the aspects of our strategic posture, the role of a next generation bomber, along with some of the other systems we’ve been talking about, clearly have to be a focus of the Quadrennial Defense Review." So Gates was pretty clearly signalling that money and the country's strategic posture would both play a role in delaying the bomber.
Also, as you read what Elder says, bear in mind what Gates said at his April 6 budget speech: "We will not pursue a development program for a follow-on Air Force bomber until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology."
Christian Lowe, our man at DefenseTech, attended the breakfast with Gen. Elder and his story follows:
Elder wasn't sure if this was the reason but thought it might have played a large role in the decision, but he said President Obama's desire to reengage in strategic arms talks with Russia might have impacted the decision to punt the NGB. Reason is, if you go ahead with NGB you're making it a part of the negotiation process, and Elder saw no need -- based on arcane counting rules for warheads per bomber -- to include the putative NGB in the negotiations.
"I suspect that one of the things that could be in play here, I don't know this for a fact, it makes sense to me, is that you don't want to lock yourself in on an airplane until you know what the counting rules are going to be. Why would I want a program this year that puts me in a bad position in terms of how I'm negotiating what the START negotiations are going to look like. ... I would not want to tie my hands in the negotiations."
If this is true, it would be a shame that the Obama administration would undercut our long-range strike capability for a more favorable negotiating position on some pie in the sky resurrection of antiquated nuclear arms reduction talks. What, am I watching "War Games" or "Failsafe" here? Are we getting back into Game Theory? I thought 1989 was 20 years ago...The Russians must be laughing all the way to the arms control bank on this one. Now their 100 year-old bombers are going to be matched up against our 100 year-old bombers -- in that equation, the Russkies win.
"Since they're looking at doing these negotiations this year, and I don't know this for a fact that the secretary brought this up, normally I would say strategy should drive your force structure. ... The counting rules in START for bombers are pretty onerous. ... The way a B-52 is counted, it's counted as carrying more weapons than you would want to carry operationally. ... It's a matter of let's not lock ourselves in and save some money."
Elder said the 2018 timeline for the NGB was tied to the retirement of the Air Launched Cruise missile which gives B-52s enough standoff range to be a viable strategic deterrent. But with the NGB falling by the wayside, then the B-52 will have to last until 2040. Yikes!
But, hey, maybe Obama and his negotiators with the Russians (and the Paks and Indians and Chinese and French and Israelis, etc.) can make good on his commitment to a nuclear free world before we even have to worry about centigenarian strategic bombers making up the bulk of our inventory? But I'm not holding my breath.