Home / Robert Farley / Air Force Continues to Make the Case for Its Own Abolition

Air Force Continues to Make the Case for Its Own Abolition

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This is insane.

The Pentagon has developed the MOP bomb specifically for destroying hardened targets. It can penetrate as deeply as 200 feet underground before detonating, more than enough capability to do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program. There are no legal or policy limitations on selling MOPs to Israel, and with an operational stockpile at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the U.S. has enough in its arsenal to share.

Israel, however, also lacks the aircraft to carry the MOP. Which means the U.S. would need to provide planes capable of carrying such a heavy payload. Only two can do so: the B-52 and the stealth B-2.

The U.S. has only 20 B-2s and would not share such a core component of nuclear deterrence. Nor is the Pentagon willing to part with active B-52s. Of the 744 built since 1955, all but roughly 80 have been decommissioned, sent to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and, in compliance with arms-control-treaty obligations, mostly rendered inoperable. With plans for a new long-range bomber delayed by defense-spending cuts and sequestration, current plans call for keeping the active duty B-52s in service for at least another 20 years.

But there are more than a dozen of the relatively “newest” B-52H bombers—built in the early 1960s—in storage. Some of these should be delivered to Israel. There’s no legal or policy impediments to their transfer; they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.

Let’s set aside all of the political questions, and just focus on the tactical problems. The GBU-57 is a precision guided gravity bomb. This means that the B-52 cannot use it from standoff range; it has to get close to the target in order to drop the weapon. The B-52 thus becomes vulnerable not only to Iranian interceptors (including F-14s which may still operate a version of the long-range Phoenix missile), but also to Iranian surface-to-air missile sites. This is why air forces don’t normally fly B-52s through contested air space. If you’re the sort of country that can carry out a massive SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) campaign that will destroy long range SAMs along the bomber route, short range SAMs near the target, and every conceivable interceptor base that could launch fighters that could plausibly get in range of the B-52s flight path, then this is a manageable problem. Or you could just send a B-2.

Israel could carry out this sort of campaign against Syria, both because of the deterioration of the Syrian air defense network and the Syrian Air Force, and because the distances are manageable. The IDF Air Force cannot carry out a large scale, prolonged SEAD campaign against Iran, in large part because the distances are un-manageable. Iranian fighters can move outside of the range of Israeli fighter-bombers, and Iran can disguise its SAMs. This isn’t such a problem for a single strike package, or even a series of strikes, because the aircraft Israel would expect to use are small enough and fast enough to either evade Iranian SAMs or destroy Iranian interceptors. Moreover, the Iranians have little incentive to expose their SAMs and their interceptors to destruction in order to kill one or two out of a hundred or more fighter-bombers.

Israeli B-52s would immediately become the juiciest target available to Iran, and the Iranian military would likely take significant risks in order to shoot one or more down. Especially if the Israelis operated only a dozen, downing one would become a significant political coup. The presence of B-52s would, accordingly, make the Israeli SEAD problem immensely more complex, and significantly increase the potential costs to Israel of carrying out the strikes. This is to say nothing,

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of course, of the problems the Israelis would have in developing sufficient expertise to maintain the B-52s, and to fly them in combat situations. These issues are not lost on the Israelis, who retired their last large, multi-engine bombers in 1958. Essentially, Deptula is asking the Israelis to use B-52s in circumstances more dangerous than the USAF itself has been willing to use them since at least 1991, and probably since 1972.

In short, it would be dumb for the US to offer B-52s, but fortunately it’s unlikely that the Israelis would be dumb enough to accept them. David Deptula almost certainly understands this.

One of the reasons for creating an independent air force is to develop a cadre of experienced, professional airpower experts. These experts are supposed to do two things. First, they manage the use of military airpower in the most efficient and effective way possible. Second, they provide expert advice to civilian policy-makers and to the public with respect to how the military can utilize airpower to accomplish national objectives. This second role means that both active-duty and retired Air Force officers have a responsibility not to spout nonsense about airpower in public fora, largely because the patina of professional expertise leads civilian policy-makers and the public at large to take this nonsense seriously.

If the Air Force cannot either a) sufficiently educate its officers such that they appreciate the consequences of the tactical and operational advice they are providing to civilians, or b) inculcate a sense of responsibility with respect to their professional obligations as managers of airpower violence, then we’re better off without an Air Force. I suspect that people know where I stand on this question.

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