Since 2005, US Air Force (USAF) leaders have committed themselves to fielding a new land-based, penetrating, long-range strike system (LRSS) by 2018. In March 2008, then USAF secretary Mike Wynne announced that a LRSS program aimed at achieving an initial operational capability (IOC) in 2018 existed, but was classified. What sort of system is needed?
Why is it needed? How urgent is that need? This report addresses these questions in light of the security environment confronting the United States in the early twenty-first century. Since the Air Force’s new LRSS program remains classified, however, this analysis concentrates less on exactly what sort of system the United States ought to field than on why it seems unwise to defer IOC to the late 2030s or beyond, as earlier Air Force plans proposed.
The first question that needs to be considered in exploring the rationale for a next-generation bomber is how to think about the issue.
Most fundamentally, is the proper context non-nuclear or conventional operations? Should the potential of a new LRSS to deter nuclear use also be taken into account, or should the United States be satisfied with a “conventional-only” design, meaning one without the hardening needed for nuclear employment? Because the American consensus on the need for nuclear weapons and the role they should play in US security has largely broken down since the Cold War ended, these questions are not easily answered. Nevertheless, the uncertainties of the future international security environment argue against limiting the 2018 bomber strictly to conventional operations. Sufficient hardening against the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a nuclear detonation to enable the LRSS to deliver a thermonuclear bomb without risking damage to its on-board electronics is far cheaper to emplace during production than later.