San Diego Union-Tribune

October 20, 2001

U.S. needs more bombers, experts say

Long-range planes 'doing heavy lifting' over Afghanistan


WASHINGTON -- The Air Force's inability to use short-range aircraft during the first 10 days of strikes on Afghanistan has re-energized the argument for buying more long-range warplanes, like the B-2, instead of a new generation of fighters.

"In Afghanistan, as in the Balkans, long-range bombers are doing the heavy lifting. It's clear the stealthy bomber, like the B-2 . . . is much more effective,"
defense analyst Loren Thompson said yesterday.

"The war we're currently conducting shows that future airstrikes will have to be by bombers and carrier-based aircraft because of the reluctance of allies" to allow use of their bases, Cato Institute analyst Evan Eland said earlier this week.

The refusal of the nations bordering Afghanistan to permit use of their airfields for airstrikes meant the air war was conducted by Navy fighters flying 600 to
700 miles from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, and Air Force bombers flying 2,500 miles from Diego Garcia or more than 7,000 miles from Missouri.

It was Wednesday, the 11th day of the war, before Air Force F-15E fighters were used, flying from an undisclosed base in the Persian Gulf.

Although the lack of airfields close to Afghanistan is due to political considerations, it illustrates the problem that Pentagon officials have warned
will emerge when enemies use missiles and other weapons to deny access to nearby bases.

"We are in the midst of our first access-denial war," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley.

To prepare for that situation in the future, Thompson, Eland and Jack Spencer, a Heritage Foundation defense analyst, called for more bombers instead of thousands of new fighters.

"We should modernize the most flexible element of the force -- the bomber force," Spencer said at a Cato forum with Eland and Hawley.

Hawley, a veteran fighter pilot, joined in the call for buying more bombers.

In the first nine days of airstrikes on Afghanistan, he said, bombers flew 10 percent of the total missions but dropped 80 percent of the bombs and hit 75
percent of all targets struck.

But the four experts differed on how to meet the need for more bombers.

Thompson and Hawley advocated buying more of the nation's most modern bomber, the stealthy B-2 Spirit.

Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, supported Northrop Grumman's offer to reopen the closed B-2 production line in Palmdale for $3
billion and to build 40 planes for $600 million each.

Eland and Spencer opposed buying more B-2s, with Spencer advocating starting research to build a hypersonic "space plane" that could reach any
target in the world in hours from U.S. bases.

The Air Force, however, opposes resuming B-2 production and plans to buy no new bombers for 30 years.

"The B-2 is a great aircraft for what it is, but we don't need any more of them," Air Force Secretary James Roche said recently.