TCS Daily

Access Denied: Why We Need The Global Strike Task Force

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 13, 2001 12:00 AM

As Kandahar teeters, it`s hard not to marvel at the successful teamwork of opposition Afghan fighters and U.S. air power in recent days. Yet upon closer examination, one notes that Air Force aircraft haven`t been as involved as they could be in bombing Afghanistan. That`s because the U.S. can`t arrange to fly the aircraft from nearby bases, whether in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, or other central Asian countries.

The Pentagon is instead supplementing the limited number of long-range bombers it is using with carrier-based aircraft. That`s despite the fact that fighter aircraft flown from carriers, with their short range and handful of bombs per sortie, present a far more expensive and less efficient way of conducting an air war than Air Force bombers would.

The problem may be fixable if the U.S. can negotiate basing rights near Afghanistan. But in future conflicts, anti-access is likely to be a bigger handicap than ever. U.S. planes could be blocked from bases by the threat of missile attack, as they might be in a conflict with China. Non-stealthy aircraft could be threatened by advanced air defenses. And even carriers could be threatened by anti-ship missiles and over-the-horizon radar, leaving the U.S. with little useable air power at all.

The Air Force needs to be able to strike targets worldwide, regardless whether politics or missiles block its aircraft from bases. The Air Force knows this, and has a concept for dealing with the problem: The Global Strike Task Force.

The trouble is, the Pentagon isn`t buying the aircraft needed to get this concept up and running.

  • It failed to propose the production of more stealthy B-2 bombers to add to the current operational fleet of 16 aircraft. Yet the B-2 is the only stealthy U.S. combat aircraft capable of flying missions around the globe from bases right in the U.S.

  • It trimmed the number of the stealthy F-22 fighters the U.S. will produce. Yet in the Global Strike Task Force concept, the F-22 is supposed to accompany the B-2 on daylight bombing raids, protecting it from enemy fighter aircraft. The cutback will leave the Air Force about 80 fighters short for this mission. For its other, air-to-ground mission of dropping munitions, the U.S. would need still more F-22s.

The fact that the Pentagon hasn't put money where its mouth is has not been lost on the House Armed Services Committee. "The Air Force's plan for a future 'global strike task force' depends heavily upon the B-2 fleet," the committee chided in its report this fall on the 2002 defense authorization bill. "The committee believes that the procurement of additional B-2s may become necessary, and directs the Secretary of the Air Force to report to Congress on the number and type of aircraft necessary for the Global Strike Task Force concept and an acquisition for procuring them."

Ironically, several top leaders in the Pentagon have in the past been staunch advocates of the B-2. "Future aggressors may draw a lesson from the Gulf War and attack nearby bases from the outset, perhaps even using ballistic missiles and chemical weapons. In those circumstances, additional B-2 bombers, operating from bases beyond the reach of enemy missiles or aircraft, would be...valuable" Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz wrote in 1995. If he still believes his own words, he's not telling.

There's been talk of developing a new bomber, starting in 2003. That'd be awfully expensive and risky: A new bomber would cost some $40 billion in development alone, and the first one wouldn't be built for 20 years, judging from the traditional length of Pentagon acquisition programs. By that time, the anti-access problem could be crippling.

By contrast, the U.S. could have new B-2s within this decade, at about $700 million apiece. Far better to get the Global Strike Task Force up and running with weapons systems the U.S. already has underway. The Pentagon should reopen the B-2 production line, and ensure there will be enough F-22s for both the fighter's air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

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