When an engine from an Air Force B-52 Stratofortress plunged into a North Dakota riverbed during a training flight earlier this year, it raised questions about the service's plan to fly the aircraft into the mid-2040s.
The incident, which remains under investigation, is believed to have been caused by a catastrophic engine failure. Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in January that the engine “seemingly disintegrated,” at which point it “came out of the aircraft.” The five-person crew was able to land safely.
The service plans to field its first new long-range strike bomber, the B-21 Raider, over the next few years. Air Force leaders hope the new aircraft, which largely is shrouded in secrecy, will reach initial capability in the mid-2020s.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, USAF (Ret), has flown every currently operational bomber in the Air Force's inventory, including the B-1, B-2, and B-52. Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Va., spent more than 3,000 hours in the cockpit and led troops on combat and humanitarian missions before retiring in 2010.
Military Officer caught up with Deptula to discuss the decision to keep the B-52 in the air through 2044 and what the B-21 will be capable of in years to come.
The interview, edited for clarity, follows.
What has made the B-52 so useful over the last several decades?
Its strongpoint is its versatility, flexibility, and adaptability. One or two B-52s can essentially carry in one day what takes fighters off a carrier 40 days to accomplish. An F/A-18E-F can carry four weapons, maybe two, depending on the amount of fuel they have to carry to go 1,000 miles one way. The B-52 can carry 70,000 pounds of ordnance and has the persistence that allows it to stay in the area and operate for long periods of time against lots of targets.
How do you see it being used going forward?
I think you're going to see the B-52 used for a variety of missions in appropriate threat environments where precision, persistence, and large numbers of weapons are required.
It can only be used in permissive air environments because its slow speed and size make it vulnerable to any kind of advanced air defense threat. But over the last 25 years, we've been operating in areas like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria - places where there are not significant air defense threats.
So I suppose that if that threat environment changed and the U.S. had to operate in a place like Russia, where air defense capabilities are more sophisticated, it might not be as useful?
What steps did the Air Force in order to give the B-52 its staying power?
The addition of precision-guided weapons was huge. It can recognize and identify targets in environments as complex as urban areas. It's also very effective as a close-air support aircraft, which we started doing in Vietnam. With a variety of improvements, we've been able to make the B-52 relevant in the 21st century.
A B-52 recently lost an engine during a training flight, and you once wrote that “our sons and daughters deserve better tools to fight the nation's wars.” Do you fear more mishaps are possible as this aircraft continues to age?
That's true with any aging system. Our youngest B-52 is over 50 years old. That's incredible. I used to think ships that were 50 years old were really ancient, much less aircraft.
When it comes to aging, you just don't know [which component] is going to reach its failure mode. It could be structural or electronic - you don't know what could happen next. We never anticipated that we would be building airplanes that would last for 50 years.
What can airmen do to mitigate those risks?
The primary area of concern is structure. Air Force structural engineers ensure aircraft are strengthened so they don't break. But it's not just about structure, it's about the guts too.
After a period of time, aircraft are taken to maintenance depots and are stripped down and rebuilt. We'll continue to do that. It's economically viable to do so. But you have to build new aircraft so you're able to survive advanced air defenses that are out there that the B-52 can no longer fly against.
Now the B-21 Raider is on deck. What are you hearing about this new aircraft that makes you excited about what the Air Force will be able to accomplish with it?
We have to stop thinking about new aircraft as if they're newer versions of old aircraft because with the advancement in the information-age capabilities, the B-21 is not just going to be a bomber. It's more accurately characterized as a long-range sensor-shooter aircraft.
It will carry computers with processing capability that weren't even in existence when the B-52 was designed. It will have sensors on board that will allow it to detect and act autonomously when penetrating contested airspace, and then the networking onboard to be able to share this information with other elements, whether [to] the airborne force or up to satellites where that information can be shared with our decision-makers in a way that we've never done before. It's really taking us into a new era of airborne systems.
You've written about the need for those long-range capabilities since access to airspace or overseas bases could continue to decrease. Is that something you think the Air Force is prepared to deal with?
Yes, but I would tell you that there are initial numbers on force structure for the B-21 are way too low. What all the services need to tie their force structure to is what our national security strategy requires the services to do.
If you look at our national security strategy, there are two enduring tenants that have been sustained over the last two or three decades, regardless of administration. No. 1 is staying engaged around the world to shape the security environment by promoting peace and stability. You have to have sufficient numbers in your rotation base to be able to do that so we don't drive our people into the ground. The second is that if you have to fight, you need to be able to do so in an expeditionary fashion and handle two conflicts simultaneously.
There's been some criticism over the B-21's projected cost. Obviously the B-52 is very different, but some are concerned about the B-21 running $550 million per aircraft compared to the B-52, which in comparison costs about $84 million in 2012 dollars. Are you concerned about that steep price tag?
Absolutely not. What I'm concerned about is the ignorance of people who only focus on the individual unit cost without taking into account the capabilities. B-52s might cost less than the B-21, but if your force has to act against the most modern, integrated air-defense system that there might be in place - say over the South China Sea - and all those B-52s get shot down the first day of the conflict, how cost-effective are they?
A B-21 can operate in that kind of environment, it can penetrate contested air space, collect information, and then share it with the rest of the force in a manner that can't be done with a conventional airplane. So we have to get away from the cost-per-aircraft [mentality] and really start looking at that cost for desired effect.