- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Senior Pentagon civilians believe they know an important "lesson learned" from the Afghanistan war: The Air Force needs more global-reach heavy bombers.
But the Air Force is resisting, triggering a fierce internal budget debate on the war's real lessons even before the last bomb is dropped on Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist army.
The private tussle rages as President Bush prepares to present his first five-year defense budget to Congress early next year. The plan will both articulate his ideas on how to transform the military for new threats, such as terrorism, and show what the generals and admirals learned from Afghanistan.
"We will clearly learn some things that we did well and some things that we'd like to be able to do better and some things that we ought to have that we don't have," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week of the war's lessons. "That will go forward, as it does after every conflict, and the process is now under way."
The battle lines fall this way: Civilian budgeteers, led by Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, want the Air Force to restart production of the Northrop Grumman Corp. B-2. The nation's first, and only, long-range stealth bomber has found new fans after missions over Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Mr. Bush has called for weapons with global reach, yet Pentagon officials say the Air Force's five-year plan calls for zero money to buy long-range bombers, while providing nearly $300 billion to procure tactical fighters.
Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, a top Northrop Grumman executive before Mr. Bush nominated him to his Pentagon post, is adamantly opposed to more B-2s. In fact, a Pentagon official says he gets "downright emotional" when the topic is raised.
His fear: If Mr. Rumsfeld sides with his civilian staff and approves more B-2s, money may have to be siphoned from the Air Force's top priority, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. The plan is to buy 339 for $62 billion, thus giving the United States the most advanced air-to-air and ground-striking jet ever put into combat.
Officials say that as an alternative to additional B-2s, Mr. Roche is proposing development of a supercruise bomber later this decade.
The Air Force secretary's fears may be real. A Pentagon official says an idea has been floated among Mr. Rumsfeld's staff to cut the F-22 buy down to 150 and use the savings to produce more B-2s.
Supporters say strategic bombers, long thought of as relics of Cold War, are showing new utility.
Reason one: With the United States unable to win basing rights for Air Force fighters adjacent to landlocked Afghanistan, strategic bombers flying from the United States and an Indian Ocean base dropped the largest share of Air Force munitions.
Reason two: The expanding deployment of the joint direct attack munition (JDAM) since its first use in Kosovo in 1998 means bombers can perform the same precision strikes as more nimble, low-flying jet fighters and carry eight times as much payload.
In Afghanistan, bombers even executed the close-air-support role. They loitered for hours over the battlefield, waiting for Army Special Forces to designate a target and then radio the geographic coordinates of a Taliban or al Qaeda ground target. The bombardier fed the coordinates into JDAM's Global Positioning System satellite-guidance system and released the bomb.
While not as accurate as a laser-guided weapon, a JDAM can strike within a few yards of a target and, unlike lasers, is impervious to poor weather.
In a bomber, the weapon reaches a new operational dimension just by sheer numbers. A B-2 can carry 16 2,000-pound JDAMs, meaning in theory it can hit 16 different targets in one mission. The Air Force's F-16C fighter carries two of the 1-ton bombs.
"Bombers have resurrected themselves," said an Air Force source, noting that the B-2's radar-avoiding characteristics makes it a prime weapon against stiffer air defenses such as Iraq's.
The B-2 still has its critics. It is based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., where crews must tend to its high-maintenance radar-absorbing "skin." The long-distance missions of more than 30 hours round trip drive up operational costs.
The Pentagon once had planned to buy 132 B-2s for $70 billion. But Congress cut the buy to 20 aircraft after the Soviet Union's collapse. Northrop Grumman has made an unsolicited offer to build 40 new aircraft for $29 billion.
B-2 supporters include some members of the Air Force fighter community. But instead of offering up cuts in the F-22, they say the money should come from the Marine Corps' troubled V-22 Osprey or the Army's Comanche helicopter.
The Air Force is not in danger of losing the F-22 or the $300 billion joint strike fighter (JSF) being developed for the Marines, Navy and Air Force.
The Pentagon's top acquisition officer, Pete Aldridge, vouched for both systems last week. He said, "When we get the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, we'll have, with essentially all-stealth capability, we'll have the ability to just dominate the skies over any adversary."
Perhaps signaling no more B-2s, Mr. Rumsfeld seems wary of taking too many lessons from fighting terrorists in a backward country.
"It is hard for me to imagine another Afghanistan," he said. "If you think about that situation, it is kind of distinctive. Now, it doesn't mean that some of the things that are working there won't work elsewhere, but the totality of it is distinctive I don't think we're going to run around with a cookie mold and repeat this."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide