CAPITOL HILL: Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, made it pretty clear he’d like more than the 100 B-21 bombers to which the service is currently committed. He would probably like close to half again that many.
Rand told a Mitchell Institute breakfast that the US currently has 156 bombers “in our inventory,” of which 96 are “combat coded.” While 96 is fewer than 100, Rand made it clear the US would put bombers into the air if the situation warranted regardless of whether they were combat coded… “If the stuff hit the fan we’d bring out all stops.”
But does that mean he thinks the US needs 156 bombers? “Where I haven’t been clear is where the ceiling is, because we are working our way through it,” he told me candidly when I asked this morning.
Some of the current bomber fleet will remain, he told us. One would assume that means some of the 76 grand and ancient B-52Hs, which will probably be flying through 2060. They are perfect for carrying standoff weapons such as the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) replacement known as the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon. (We are still hoping to hear whether the B-52 really is the Arsenal Plane that Defense Secretary Ash Carter touted in his big Third Offset speech.) And it may well include at least some of the 20 B-2s, which are being upgraded. That would mean retirement of the B-1 bombers, which are much older than the B-2 fleet and not capable of carrying as many stand-off munitions as the B-52s can haul into the air. Rand was careful to say, however, that he wasn’t saying which bombers the B-21 would replace.
If you keep the B-2s, add 50 of the B-52 fleet and add the 100 B-21s, that gets close to the 175 bombers Rand mentioned earlier this year. But that is just guesswork, and Rand seemed pretty keen to get more B-21s because of their greater ability to penetrate deep into high-threat environments such as western China and Russia.
His bottom line: “I can’t imagine how we can do our job with fewer bombers than we currently have,” Rand said. Has he may backed off a bit from his earlier estimate of a total fleet of 175 to 200 bombers. Hard to tell. And that may well be part of the strategic ambiguity the Air Force and senior Pentagon leaders have pushed hard to maintain when it comes to their plans and capabilities of the B-21.
Rand also said he hopes Air Force acquisition acts very soon on the UH-1N helicopter replacement. “I’m hoping we’re talking weeks, not months when that (Request for Proposal) will be released,” he said pointedly, noting he’d given AF/AQ the requirements for the new helicopter to accompany nuclear warheads on their to and from missile fields and to respond to threats to the silos. Sikorsky, as Breaking D readers know, had hoped for a sole source contract award to replace the UH-1Ns with Blackhawk helicopters. Under pressure from Capitol Hill and industry, the service folded and agreed to an open competition.