The need to modernize America's nuclear deterrent couldn't have come at a worse time. The Department of Defense is under a legal mandate to cut more than $1 trillion from its budget by 2023, and expensive programs to build new strategic weapons or upgrade existing ones are prime candidates for savings. Further complicating matters, President Obama has adopted a nuclear strategy based on the fantasy that other nations will scrap their nuclear arms if only the United States does so first.
One of the cornerstones of the overdue modernization is a new, long-range bomber to replace aging B-2s and B-52s, some of which will be 60 years old next year. Development of a replacement has already been pushed back past 2018 by the mandatory budget cuts and the New START agreement with Russia. Now it's looking more like 2025 before a new bomber could become operational, assuming it survives anti-defense-spending pressures.
The new Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, is shrouded in secrecy, but reportedly the Air Force is looking to build up to 100 of the aircraft at a cost of $550 million each. The price cap is meant to avoid what happened with the B-2, which ended up costing more than $1 billion each, with the result that Congress refused to buy more than 21. This kept 76 aging B-52s on active-flying status despite being more than 50 years old and on their third generation of pilots. The Air Force plans to keep them flying for another 25 years.
Cost-cutting pressures have already affected the LRS-B program, with advanced surveillance sensors and cyber defenses among the improvements cast aside to meet the cap. But even if it comes in under budget, the program may still fall victim to the fact that defense spending is one of the few areas of the federal budget most lawmakers can agree to cut.
But that's a foolish economy. Russia and China are modernizing their strategic nuclear forces, Pakistan is expanding its arsenal and the threat of nuclear proliferation still hangs over the Middle East, in spite of the administration's rosy predictions about the recent deal with Iran.
A long-range bomber may be seen as an anachronism in fashionable circles, but it still has important advantages. It can launch attacks from within the United States, eliminating the need for forward bases controlled by foreign governments, which can deny access at vital moments. It can linger over enemy territory to attack targets of opportunity, such as mobile missile launchers that pop up out of hiding. And it can be recalled, unlike a ballistic missile launched from a submarine or an underground silo on land. The bomber is thus the most flexible weapon in the three-cornered deterrent force.
The country is living on borrowed time with aircraft that are older than the pilots flying them. The time to act is now so that at least their children will have something new with which to keep America's enemies at bay.