The Air Force’s shopping list for the next decade is full of new weapons programs. Defense observers say most high-end weapons will be spared from the deepest of Defense Department budget cuts over the next several years.
But because the Air Force plans to roll out its big-ticket items around the same time, the service’s programs, especially the stealth bomber, could go from the shopping list to the chopping block.
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper joined In Depth with Francis Rose to discuss balancing the Pentagon’s budget from the war fighter’s perspective – weighing spending cuts with troop readiness.
Jumper said the bomber program hasn’t been helped by years of “sketchy” funding. Previous bomber budget woes revolved around the difficulty of defining requirements, based on what exactly a long-range strike will look like in the future, he said. For example, will the bomber be unmanned, hypersonic or follow more traditional designs?
However, now that those kinks have been worked out, the program – which eventually will furnish DoD with about 100 of the aircraft – is faced with a “perfect storm” in its rollout, Jumper said. That is, it’s scheduled to launch around the same time as the Air Force’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and the KC-46A tanker.
Jumper said the bomber program is necessary for the future.
“The question to me has always been not whether the nation can afford to do this, but whether the nation can afford not to do this,” he said. The current fleet of Air Force bombers is mostly made up of B-52s, which came into service during the Eisenhower era, and B-1s, which rolled off the assembly line in the 1970s. These aging weapons systems will face a “new generation of high-tech, contested airspace around the world that we need to have the capability to penetrate,” Jumper said.
The answer isn’t as simple as retro-fitting an older bomber with all the new bells and whistles, though, he said. “It’s like taking a Ferrari engine out of a Formula One racer and fitting it into a 1956 Nash,” he said. And simply buying fewer of the aircraft won’t solve the problem either, he said, because as the number of orders decreases, the price-per-copy rises.
Even though the Pentagon’s budget has climbed dramatically over the past decade, “none of the services have really bought anything new during this period of time,” Jumper said. “And so now we come to the point where everything is wearing out at the same time. This isn’t only for the Air Force; this is for the other services as well.”