The Air Force's fleet of short-range fighters is leaving the western Pacific region. They are counting on the B-21 fleet for the bulk of their heavy fighting in the event China invades.
All 50 or so 18th Wing F-15s, many more than 40 years old, are slated to leave Okinawa over the next two years. Some will join the six U.S. Air National Guard squadrons that still fly F-15Cs. Others will go into storage in Arizona.
The two events are related. As the Air Force’s short-range fighters depart the western Pacific region, the service is counting on the far-flying B-21s to do much of the heaviest fighting in the event of a war with China.
The shift from fighters to bombers isn’t total or irreversible. The Air Force plans to continue rotating visiting fighters through Kadena, starting with Alaska-based F-22s that arrived around the same time the first F-15s were leaving.
There’s also a USAF wing with 50 or so F-16s that flies from Misawa Air Force Base in northern Japan. And the U.S. Navy almost always has at least one—sometimes two or three—aircraft carriers and assault ships in the western Pacific, each with its own embarked fighters.
But the Pentagon isn’t counting on those fighters to win a war with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The F-15C is America’s longest-range fighter, and with a useful missile load it ranges just 800 miles or so on internal fuel.
It’s not for no reason that the main Air Force base for operations in the western Pacific is Kadena, 470 miles northeast of Taiwan and around the same distance from mainland China, to the west. Kadena is the only base in the region that can project fighters into the air space around Taiwan without those fighters needing a lot of mid-air refueling from slow, vulnerable tanker planes.
The problem for U.S. forces is that after two decades of relentless modernization, the PLA now possesses thousands of DF-16, DF-17, DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles and YJ-18 cruise missiles that can strike Kadena.
The PLA in wartime would have other targets, of course—including potentially thousands across Taiwan—but it’s safe to assume that, in the early hours of a war, the PLA would aim to destroy Kadena. Hardened aircraft shelters can help the 18th Wing survive a little longer, as can U.S. Army missile-defense batteries. But there are no defensive measures that totally can prevent Kadena from taking a lot of hits, fast.
Pentagon planners know this. They’re determined to pull U.S. air power away from China to bases beyond range of the majority of the PLA’s missiles, starting with the 18th Wing’s aging Eagles. Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, a major USAF bomber hub 1,800 miles from China, is the obvious fallback position. There are others, including an airfield in Darwin, Australia, that’s 2,600 miles from China.
What all the air bases have in common is that they’re much, much too far from China to project fighter aircraft into combat around Taiwan—absent, of course, an unprecedented aerial tanker bridge that itself would be vulnerable to Chinese attack.
To have any chance of sustaining an air campaign over the western Pacific, the USAF needs long-range bombers. Preferably long-range bombers that don’t require fighter escorts. That means stealth bombers.
The problem is, there are just 20 1990s-vintage B-2 stealth bombers in the USAF inventory. Too few for a large-scale campaign. Forty-five non-stealthy B-1s and 76 even less stealthy B-52Hs round out the current bomber fleet.
The B-21 with its radar-scattering shape, approximately 6,000-mile unrefueled range and 15-ton payload meets the performance requirements to replace the B-2. Whether Northrop and the Air Force can produce the bombers quickly and at an acceptable cost remains to be seen.
When the Air Force tapped Northrop to develop and build the B-21 in 2015, the idea was to produce enough new stealth bombers to replace the B-2s and B-1s in the 2030s and then, over the following decade, expand the overall bomber fleet to at least 175 total airframes, the majority of which would be stealthy.
Recall that the Pentagon once planned to acquire 132 B-2s. But spiraling overall program costs prompted deep cuts that only increased the per-plane cost to several billion dollars, ultimately resulting in today’s tiny force of essentially priceless stealth bombers.
The B-21, which the Air Force hopes will cost just $750 million a plane, could suffer the same fate. That would be a catastrophic outcome for U.S. strategy in the western Pacific. The Pentagon needs the Raider, and the Raider program, to work.guest posts