As free Iraqis were tearing down the grotesque statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad last Tuesday, another earth-moving event was taking place back here: Vice President Dick Cheney was giving the B-2 stealth bomber a ringing endorsement.
This most futuristic of U.S. aircraft, which does not need to rely on bases near the conflict because it is capable of flying from the U.S. to its target in Iraq and back in one fell swoop, has been the workhorse of the last few U.S. wars. Largely unseen by enemy radar, the B-2 broke the back of enemy air defenses in Serbia and Iraq. (Afghanistan had no air defenses to speak of, so the B-2’s role in that conflict was limited to the first few days.)
Yet the B-2 has been almost maliciously neglected in defense budgets, with no plans to add to the minuscule fleet of 16 operational bombers. Not even the Rumsfeld Pentagon, with all its talk of transformation, produced a commitment to long-range stealthy strike.
Maybe the neglect is about to end. The B-2 was the only weapon Vice President Cheney mentioned by name in his speech: “In Desert Storm, we did not yet have the B-2. But that aircraft is now critical to our operations. And on a single bombing sortie, a B-2 can hit 16 separate targets, each with a 2,000-pound, precision-guided, satellite-based weapon,” he said. Cheney might have added that in Iraq the B-2 also dropped 80 dumb bombs in one sortie — a harbinger of the capability it will have, starting next year, to drop 80 precision-guided weapons in one go.
Defense planning requires as much reading of mysterious tea leaves as does any other government process, and the scheming of Pentagon officials is rivaled only by the Byzantines. Therefore, whether the Veep’s B-2 mention will have lasting significance remains to be seen.
But it didn’t go unnoticed. Cheney’s hats-off to the remarkable aircraft is heartening to those of us who believe the future U.S. military needs an air force that is capable of striking targets across great distances, unhampered by enemy air defenses, and independent of the political and military constraints on basing that we saw in Turkey in this war, and in Pakistan in the last war. Whether that aircraft is a manned B-2 or an Unmanned Global Strike system — a pilotless version of the B-2 with improved stealth — is less relevant than that more long-range stealthy bombers are built.
It has been terribly perplexing why the Pentagon has devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to short-legged, regional-base-dependent fighters that played almost no role in Afghanistan because of basing problems, and that shared the stage with bombers in Iraq, yet has devoted almost no money to the essential long-range stealthy bomber program.
One can only hope that with the Cheney speech, the White House is signaling that the imbalance is coming to an end.
Melana Zyla Vickers is a contributing editor to DefenseCentralStation.com.