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America’s best hope to beat China in the air

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Northrop Grumman

y light-text”>The B-21.

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Northrop Grumman capture

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The US Air Force and Northrop Grumman launched their new B-21 Raider stealth bomber in a ceremony at the secretive Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California on Friday night.

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Boeing F-15C Eagle

A day earlier, 6,000 miles away, the first Boeing F-15C Eagle fighters belonging to the USAF‘s 18th Wing took off from Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan‘s southernmost island prefecture.

Air National Guard

The 18th Wing’s approximately 50 F-15s, many over 40 years old, are scheduled to leave Okinawa in the next two years. Some will join the six squadrons of the US Air National Guard that still fly F-15Cs. Others will be stored in Arizona.

Air Force

The two events are related. As the Air Force’s short-range fighters depart from the western Pacific region, the service relies on far-flying B-21s to do much of the most intense fighting in the event of a war with China.

Air Force

The change from fighters to bombers is neither total nor irreversible. The Air Force plans to continue rotating visiting fighters through Kadena, beginning with Alaska-based F-22s that arrived around the same time the first F-15s left.

Misawa Air Force Base

There is also a USAF wing with some 50 F-16s flying out of Misawa Air Force Base in northern Japan. And the US Navy almost always has at least one, sometimes two or three, aircraft carriers and assault ships in the western Pacific, each with their own embarked fighters.

Chinese People

But the Pentagon is not counting on such fighters to win a war with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The F-15C is America’s longest-range fighter, and with a payload of missiles, it has a range of only about 800 miles on internal fuel.

Air Force

It is not without reason that the Air Force’s main operating base in the western Pacific is Kadena, 470 miles northeast of Taiwan and about the same distance from mainland China to the west. Kadena is the only base in the region that can project fighters into the airspace around Taiwan without those fighters needing much mid-air refueling with slow and vulnerable tankers.

DF-21 and DF-26

The problem for US 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 chain.

The wartime PLA would have other targets, of course, including potentially thousands in Taiwan, but it’s safe to assume that, in the first hours of a war, the PLA would aim to destroy Kadena. Hardened aircraft shelters can help the 18th Wing survive a bit longer, as can the US Army’s anti-missile defense batteries. But there are no defensive measures that can totally prevent Kadena from taking a lot of hits, fast.

Andersen Air Force Base in Guam

Pentagon planners know this. They are determined to shift US air power away from China to bases beyond the range of most PLA missiles, starting with the aging Eagles of the 18th Wing. Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, a major USAF bomber hub 1,800 miles from China, is the obvious reserve position. There are others, including an airfield in Darwin, Australia, which is 2,600 miles from China.

What all the airbases have in common is that they are too, too far from China to screen combat aircraft around Taiwan, absent of course an unprecedented airlift that 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.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

The problem is that there are only 20 B-2 stealth bombers from the 1990s in the USAF inventory. Too few for a large-scale campaign. Forty-five non-stealthy B-1s and 76 even less stealthy B-52Hs complete the current bomber fleet.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

The B-21 with its radar scattering shape, a range of about 6,000 miles without refueling, and a 15-tonne payload meets the performance requirements to replace the B-2. It remains to be seen if Northrop and the Air Force can produce the bombers quickly and at an acceptable cost.

Air Force

When the Air Force turned to Northrop to develop and build the B-21 in 2015, the idea was to produce enough new stealth bombers to replace the B-2 and B-1 in the 2030s and then, over the next decade, expand. the total. bomber fleet to at least 175 airframes in total, most of which would be stealthy.

Air power advocates have called on the Air Force to go further and double the bomber inventory with up to 200 B-21s replacing the B-1s and B-2s and complementing the B-52s.

With 100 to 200 airframes and a network of bases outside the range of most of China’s missiles, the Raider force could ultimately become the USAF’s main contribution to any war with China.

Now Northrop

Deploying the bomber is the first step on a long journey. Now Northrop and the Air Force must test the B-21, modify the design and increase production while keeping the unit cost low.

Remember that the Pentagon once planned to acquire 132 B-2s. But the overall costs of the spiraling program caused deep cuts that only increased the cost per aircraft to several billion dollars, ultimately resulting in the current small force of essentially invaluable stealth bombers.

Air Force

The B-21, which the Air Force expects to cost just $750 million per plane, could meet the same fate. That would be a catastrophic outcome for the US strategy in the western Pacific. The Pentagon needs the Raider and the Raider program to work.

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