As pressure rises for the US to abandon overseas bases crucial to the U.S. ability to reach deep into China, Russia and other strategic locations, the service is growing increasingly hungry to buy a basket of long range strike capabilities.
Air Force officials say it would probably be a mix of platforms -- manned and unmanned -- and some of them will almost certainly be stealthy and they will boast a range of at least 1,800 miles. And they will be expensive. Why do the Air Force and so many estimable defense analysts believe the U.S must build a replacement for the B-52s and B-2 bombers?
"Considering the time that is required to develop and field new weapon systems, if the next defense budget continues to defer needed long-range strike investments, a gap is likely to emerge in which the nation could lose its conventional long-range strike advantage for a decade or more," Mark Gunzinger wrote last month in a major report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.
Now there are discussions inside the Air Force -- we aren't sure how far along they are -- about trading as many as 400 Joint Strike Fighters to get 100 of the LRS planes. "We would love to do that, but the politics of it are very difficult. Senior leadership is worried that any cut to the buy will drive the unit costs up," this Air Force source said. And that would make defending the JSF more difficult on Capitol Hill.
The Air Force considered a similar trade two years ago, according to Loren Thompson, defense analyst and consultant.
In this tight budget environment, a relatively short-range aircraft like the Joint Strike Fighter may fall victim to the difficult choices over what will buy the most strategic influence over time. But let's restate it: while there are elements in the Air Force considering this, it's probably a long way from a decision.