Pentagon-funded research not-for-profit organization MITRE has reported that the U.S. Air Force urgently needs additional long-range aircraft, especially high-capacity bombers for sustained, high-intensity combat operations in the Indo-Pacific theater.
The Indo-Pacific is the most consequential region for America’s future. Spanning a vast stretch of the globe from the west coast of the United States to the western shores of India, the region is home to the world’s most populous state, most populous democracy, and largest Muslim-majority state, and includes over half of the earth’s population. Among the 10 largest standing armies in the world, 7 reside in the Indo-Pacific; and 6 countries in the region possess nuclear weapons. Nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports are in the region, and 60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Asia, with roughly one-third of global shipping passing through the South China Sea alone.
The Indo-Pacific is the Department of Defense’s priority theater and America is regularly conducting freedom of navigation exercises as part of the wider move to protect naval sea lanes in accordance with international maritime law.
MITRE’s study analytically explored basing needs, threats to bases, mission requirements, and the aircraft needed to perform those missions.
“Operational effectiveness is significantly impacted by basing and logistical support, especially when U.S. forces play an “away game” thousands of miles from the mainland U.S.,” MITRE said in new data adding that “Unsurprisingly, aircraft flying from bases closer to a combat zone can generate more combat power in a permissive environment, but they are also at far greater risk to enemy attack.”
It is of considerable concern that the regional processes are taking place within a context of increased Chinese and Russian anti-access/area-denial capabilities and will only become more lethal and plentiful by 2030.
Experts suggested in response to new threats additional basing options in both forward and rear areas.
“Bases should be better supported through defensive systems, decoy and deception measures, and new concepts of operations,” said in the report.
The organization also says the Air Force needs additional combat power to meet the requirements laid out in the National Defense Strategy. This requires not just more aircraft, weapons, and bases, but also a higher state of readiness. Many aircraft types currently languish with mission capable (MC) rates in the 50%-60% range; these need to be brought up and kept above 80%. Doing so has the same combat effect as buying additional aircraft and avoids the perils of building a “hollow force.”
To support long-range operations, the Air Force should prepare four additional rear-area bases to serve as bomber and tanker operating locations.
“These bases could be on U.S. territory, or in nations such as Australia or Papua New Guinea. Since no new bombers are currently in production, the Air Force should delay any bomber retirements until the B-21 is available in significant numbers,” according to new data from the MITRE.
Currently, the U.S. possesses 62 B-1s, 20 B-2s and 75 B-52s, however the low mission capable (MC) rates of these aircraft means fewer than 100 of the 157 bombers are available to fly at any given time.
If the entire fleet of bombers had an MC-rate of 80% or higher, nearly 30 extra bombers would be available for missions.
Because no new bombers will enter the Air Force inventory until the mid-2020s, MITRE recommends immediate, sustained investment to maintain 80% or higher mission capable rates across the current bomber fleets.
MITRE also recommends considering no bomber retirements until there are at least 50 operational B-21s bombers in the inventory in the mid 2030s. If possible with low risk to the program, consider accelerating B-21 production, and consider extending production beyond the planned 100 B-21s before proceeding with further legacy bomber retirements.