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What does the new US strategic bomber mean for the UK and Europe?

Image credit: AF GlobalStrike

Image credit: AF GlobalStrike

On the 27 October came the news that the United States Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $60 billion project to build the next generation Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). For its money this project aims to deliver 80-100 stealthy supersonic aircraft, which will replace the aging B-52 and B-1 bomber fleets and complement the B-2 force. At present and as far as one can see, the United Kingdom nor any other European nation will be procuring any of these aircraft or involved in the project. Nevertheless, the LRS-B programme will still have a major impact on the UK and the rest of Europe.

The reason for singling out the UK in this piece is that money for the LRS-B means less money in a shrinking and embattled US defence pot for the F-35. This weakens the UK’s strategic gamble because the UK is dependent upon the F-35B operating from its Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, as well as – depending upon security – land bases to provide its offensive strike capability. Whilst the Royal Navy will logically continue to field Tomahawk and successor cruise missiles, these are not as flexible in terms of weapon flexibility as an aircraft load-out, and of course do not represent a reusable strike system – putting a realistic limit on their utility. In addition to this there is the question of whether Britain will get enough escorts and submarines to be able to rely upon fielding that required land attack capability.

Whilst the carrier/F-35 situation is another symptom of the short-term decision-making of recent British governments, in this case it was the selection of the ‘Short-Take Off & Vertical Landing’ (STOVL) variant – leaving Britain with only one fixed wing option for its carrier air group. This is opposed to the ‘Catapult Assisted Take Off & Barrier Assisted Recovery’ (CATOBAR) system, which would have allowed governments to select from US F/A-18 Super Hornets or even the French Rafael if the F-35 failed. Even the ‘Short-Take Off & Barrier Assisted Recovery’ (STOBAR) system – as used by the Chinese, Indians and Russians – might have offered alternatives.

For the UK therefore the F-35 is going to be it, and while the Eurofighter is a fine aircraft, it is the F-35 which has ‘Strike’ in its title and that has forged its design in many ways. It is the F-35 that has been said can operate from Britain’s two aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales. So if the US is not investing as much in the F-35, then the UK will either have to stump up more cash itself or make the best of operating what will still be a very good, but not as good as it could be, aircraft. This problem will compound the issues already created by Canada electing a government committed to leaving the F-35 programme, while the US muses on cutting its total buy, all decisions that will put up individual unit costs – endangering the total UK buy.

Furthermore, this bomber is of course another sign of the continuing US ‘Pacific Pivot’ strategy: as in Europe, with its many centres of gravity, plentiful air fields, and well developed infrastructure a bomber is not necessary to carry out the strike mission. However, in the Pacific, where things are farther apart, where there is less well developed infrastructure – especially of the kind necessary to support modern combat aircraft for an Air Force to be able to get into a ‘fight’ –, the range and capabilities of a bomber are needed.

The trouble for European nations like the UK is that whilst this makes strategic sense for the US to ‘pivot’ to the Pacific, and even to an extent for the UK and other European nations (which are just as dependent upon trade passing through places like the South and East China Seas as America), those nations do not have an ocean between them and the troubles to their immediate North East, East, South East and South. With the US committing even more resources to the Pacific, and the procurement of equipment for that theatre, there will undoubtedly be less for the Atlantic and European theatres – with bigger consequences than simply a shortage of helicopters for exercises. This means that the UK especially, but many other European nations as well, are going to have to start looking after themselves more – which means spending more and thinking harder about that spending.

The biggest impact though might not even be this, because with the US announcing a new bomber programme, those nations which seek to compete for status with the US may well themselves start pushing on that front. If China and Russia start to acquire new bombers, then it will of course change the UK’s own security needs – the UK has been strangely lacking land-based area air defence missiles, and as a nation it has consistently ignored this capability. Whilst some European nations are better equipped in this area, the traditional reliance upon NATO that was built up during the Cold War has meant many nations lack sovereign capability.

This has been noted, even when faced with air space probes by early Cold War Bear Bombers. Prior to this Russia had already announced an intention to restart production of the late Cold War Blackjack bombers – faced with the US forging ahead, and to maintain their ‘image of their status’, Russia may decide to not stop with this but to start building new bombers. This will mean that the UK and Europe may once again find themselves participants in an arms race, which they may not have started, but which nevertheless they will have to take part in.

This could all seem like rather a lot of complications caused by just one American procurement programme, but heavy bombers are the aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines and main battle tanks of air forces – they are the major programme because they are the unique capability that does not exist to support other services. Tactical fighters may launch strike missions but more often than not they support ground forces; bombers may be used to support ground forces, but their whole raison d’être is strike – that is what they exist for. Furthermore, in a world where governments are expected by many to do more and more then balancing the books and focusing on what has often been described as the ‘first duty of government’ becomes even more difficult. The LRS-B represents a fine strategic decision for the US government and is completely rational within their strategic world view – but for the UK, for Europe and for their Allies around the world it is going to create problems and questions which will have to be answered.

Vol. 7, No. 67 (2015)


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