On January 19, the Air Force struck Libya to halt terrorist activity using B-2 stealth bombers. This was not the first strike against Libya. A mix of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy fighters conducted strikes 30 years ago against Libya in response to terrorist acts in Europe.
A comparison of the two raids illustrates the evolution in air warfare over those 30 years—and points to the great value of the B-2 and the planned B-21. One thing is clear: long-range, high-payload, sensor-shooter aircraft like the B-2 and B-21 yield military options in a far more potent and cost effective fashion than legacy aircraft.
In the 1986 Libyan raid, known as Operation Eldorado Canyon, 18 Air Force F-111 medium bombers flying from the United Kingdom combined with 15 Navy carrier-based aircraft operating from two carriers in the Mediterranean, conducted the attack. Denied over-flight by France, Spain, and Italy, the air armada had to fly a lengthy mission that required support by 28 air-refueling tankers. Sixteen additional electronic warfare aircraft (4 EF-111s and 12 Navy fighters) flew to suppress Libyan air defenses. The 33 strike aircraft delivered 48 guided and 252 unguided bombs against five target complexes. One F-111 aircraft was shot down in the raid and the two crew members were killed.
In the 2017 strike, flying from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the B-2s delivered 108 precision-guided bombs that killed some 100 Islamic State terrorists at two camps. A small contingent of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft provided pre-strike intelligence, observed the main attack, and then used Hellfire missiles to kill terrorists attempting to escape. Some 15 tankers supported the mission.
Comparisons between the two attacks illustrate the value of the unique combination of range, precision, large payload and stealth into one aircraft:
- The 1986 raid required 77 aircraft and two aircraft carrier battle groups. The 2017 attack required 17 manned aircraft (2 bombers, 15 tankers) plus a small number of MQ-9 drones. To deliver 108 weapons with fighters today operating from carriers or regional bases would require about two-dozen fighters and about the same number of tankers. This illustrates the value of long range and large payload—massed precision punch from a small number of aircraft.
- The B-2 attack only put four people at risk compared to the over five-dozen aircrew that flew in harm’s way in 1986.
- In 1986, just 16 percent of the weapons were precision-guided, compared to 100 percent in the 2017 raid. Precision weapons are 15-30 times more effective than unguided weapons. So, while the 1986 attack delivered more weapons, the 108 precision weapons delivered by the B-2 provided greater overall effectiveness.
- The 1986 raid had to deal with air defenses — the B-2s in 2017 did not. However, when air defenses were a threat in the attacks against Libya in 2011, stealthy B-2s penetrated without the extensive defense suppression the Air Force and Navy fighters required in 1986. Stealth reduces the need for defense suppression and increases overall aircraft survivability.
- The Defense Department has stated that B-2s were selected because no overflight permissions were required (and thus no warning of the attack would leak). In 1986, the US planned to overfly France, Spain, and Italy, but was denied permission. This required the UK-based force to fly a much longer route (and required significantly more tanker support). It also opened up the potential that Libya would be alerted to the raid. The B-2’s combination of range and payload provided significant operational flexibility and allowed for the important component of surprise.
- The 2017 raid was far less expensive to accomplish a similar objective. Some analysts use cost per flying hour to calculate costs, but this is a very poor metric. The vast majority of support costs (personnel, spares, etc.) are fixed each year, so the cost per hour will typically decrease as flying hours increase. A better metric is what does it cost to maintain a capability each day? Each B-2 costs $110,000 per day ($FY16) in support costs while tankers cost about $27,000 per day ($FY16). That is roughly $600,000 for operating all the aircraft plus the 108 weapons costing some $2 million. Compare that to the daily cost of the two carrier groups and their aircraft in 1986—$13 million per day in current year dollars—not to mention the daily cost of the F-111s and tankers. In addition, the laser-guided weapons employed by the F-111s were much more expensive than the B-2’s satellite-guided weapons.
The 2017 raid illustrates the growing value of long-range, large payload, survivable aircraft. As threats become more capable and proliferate, we will need a much larger number of B-21s—the next generation long-range sensor-shooter—than the handful of B-2’s we have at the ready today. The B-21 will become the centerpiece of our Nation’s future power projection capabilities across the spectrum of conflict that we will face. Accordingly, the B-21 must become a key priority in the new Trump Administration if it is to achieve its goal of making our military strong again, and doing so in a cost-effective manner.
David Deptula, a retired Air Force Lt. General, planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. He is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors.