Against an enemy less ill-equipped than the Taliban in 2001 or Iraq in 2003, these aging bombers would be easy targets for surface-to-air missiles. In 1972, North Vietnamese air defenses destroyed 18 B-52s. In 1991, during the first Persian Gulf War, the Air Force held them back from Iraqi airspace until other systems had hammered down Saddam Hussein's air defenses. In 1999, B-52s struck Serbian forces in the field but avoided critical targets such as Belgrade itself.
In every war after 1991, "the very toughest targets were assigned to the B-2 [stealth bomber], and only at night," said Rebecca Grant, who wrote a report for the Air Force Association advocating, in the words of its title, the "Return of the Bomber." Said Grant, "Commanders have been limiting what they do with the B-1 and the B-52 for a decade at least."
Yet the Air Force's 94 surviving B-52s -- out of 744 built -- today make up more than half its fleet of long-range, large-payload bombers, along with 65 B-1Bs, built in the 1980s, and 21 B-2s. When the last B-2 was delivered in 1997, it was the first time the Air Force had not had a new bomber in production or at least in development since 1917.
For a decade, however, the service's plan was to concentrate on short-range, small-payload but high-performance fighter/ attack airplanes, buying 175 F-22s and 1,763 F-35s, at a total price of more than $250 billion, while postponing a "future long-range strike" program to 2037, the year the youngest B-52 turns 75 years old.
Now, after years of prodding from Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Air Force officials have publicly committed to flying a new bomber by 2018. The development costs alone for a new bomber could reach $30 billion over the next 10 years. But many analysts doubt the Air Force's seriousness.
"We'll know it when we see cash," said Richard Aboulafia, senior aviation analyst for the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group. So far, funding for the bomber is classified. "So either it's a totally 'black' program," Aboulafia said, "or it's just talk -- preserving cash for fighters while fending off congressional criticism over inadequate funding for bombers."
Nearly half of all Air Force generals are fighter pilots, but less than 5 percent have bomber backgrounds. Since Vietnam, the service has favored high-performance fighters over bombers. That choice means sacrificing range and payload, the bombers' strong points, for the maneuverability and speed that fighters use to penetrate enemy air defenses.
In 1999, the Serbians shot down an F-117 stealth fighter, and the Air Force fears that the defeat of the B-2's more advanced stealth features is just a matter of time as advanced sensor technologies proliferate around the world. So the next generation of aircraft, the F-22 and the F-35, is designed not only for stealth but also for agility and supersonic speed, allowing them to break away from any hostile radar that does manage to detect them. The Air Force's argument for the ultra-high-performance, $338 million F-22 is that no other aircraft can survive against the next generation of air defenses.
Bomber advocates retort that any adversary able to afford such air defenses will also have the ability to deny the U.S. air bases near its borders, by intimidating neighboring countries, employing terrorist sabotage, or using Scud-type ballistic missiles. The nightmare scenario is a war over Taiwan with China's rapidly modernizing military.
Even from the nearest U.S. bases, in South Korea, the F-22 and the F-35 may well penetrate the outer layers of enemy defenses only to run out of fuel long before they reach any target. Slow, bulky tankers can refuel the short-range fighters in midair, but would never perform this delicate operation in full view of hostile radars. Thus, strike planes must rely on their internal fuel tanks once they enter enemy airspace. The F-22 has an estimated combat radius -- the maximum distance it can fly before it must return to base -- of 540 nautical miles; the still-in-development F-35 will be slightly better, at about 633 miles.Either fighter could hit, say, Tehran from bases in Kuwait, or Beijing from South Korea. But if U.S. allies balked, or if the bases came under fire, or if, in China's case, key targets were hidden deep in Central Asia -- like the Xichang space facility from which China test-launched an anti-satellite missile in January -- the fighters would simply run out of gas.
By contrast, the B-2 has a combat radius of more than 3,000 miles. The stealth bomber program, of course, was cut off at 21 aircraft because of the mismatch between the B-2's $2.1 billion cost and its many limitations. The plane's radar-deflecting shape, without an upright tail to aid maneuvering, made it an awkward flier. Its radar-absorbent covering proved to be a maintenance nightmare, requiring ground crews to reseal gaps using putty knives and special tape, although Northrop later developed a spray-on version. But the B-2 first flew in 1989, and 18 years of research since then has gone a long way toward reconciling stealth with maneuverability and maintainability, as in the F-22 fighter.
Starting with an Air Force "request for information" in 2004, Northrop and other contractors have been exploring a blank sheet of paper for the future of bomber design. Besides improving stealth, modern manufacturing techniques enable the use of composite materials to reduce cost and weight.
What's more, the shift from dropping large numbers of unguided "iron bombs" to small numbers of precision weapons -- a revolution only dreamed of when the B-2 was designed in the 1980s, before the first Gulf War -- means a future bomber could get by with perhaps half the B-2's massive 20-ton bomb load, slashing not only cost and weight but also size and therefore visibility on radar.
So the future bomber that Air Force generals have described in recent months looks very much like a smaller, sleeker, second-generation B-2, and like the B-2 it is a subsonic aircraft. But the Air Force often describes the bomber that's coming in 2018 as an "interim" bomber, a stopgap to shore up the aging air fleet while it works on truly revolutionary technologies for an ultimate bomber replacement in 2037.
The service's Holy Grail is a hypersonic aircraft, possibly unmanned, capable of high-altitude "suborbital" flight at more than six times the speed of sound along the boundary between the upper atmosphere and space. The Air Force long deferred a new bomber design on the grounds that hypersonics needed more time to develop but was the right technology for the next plane, and even now, the 2018 plane strikes some observers as a reluctant compromise.
But would a hypersonic, suborbital superbomber really be worth waiting for? "It would be neat, it would be sexy, it would be cool, but I just can't see the operational utility against real-world problems," said Barry Watts, a veteran aviation analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles -- armed with high-precision conventional bombs instead of nuclear warheads -- would be costly one-shot weapons, but they could hit any target on Earth in 30 minutes. Hypersonic aircraft are not only decades and billions of dollars away but relatively slow in comparison, needing two hours to race around the world from the United States. By contrast, one of the B-52s that the Special Forces horsemen called on in Afghanistan was able to drop its bombs in 19 minutes because the lumbering aircraft was already circling overhead.
It is in such on-call air strikes, with long-endurance, large-payload aircraft linked electronically to troops on the ground that existing bombers have proved their worth since 2001. What we need, Watts and others argue, is not raw speed but "loiter time," the ability to stay in enemy airspace long enough to hunt down elusive targets and then hit them within minutes before they fade away.
For such missions, a highly stealthy but subsonic 2018 bomber might be not only more affordable but also more appropriate than a speeding 2037 space plane. And if the Air Force does not get serious about the "interim" bomber soon, it may never get its Holy Grail plane anyway.
"Production of some existing aircraft will be tailing off by that point , freeing up industrial capacity," said Jeremiah Gertler, vice president for defense and international programs at the Aerospace Industries Association. "But if you wait until 2037, then the engineers who worked on the F-22 and the F-35 won't be there."
The question is whether the Air Force, caught between limited budgets and its high-tech desires, can seize the war bird it has in the hand.