The growing gap between mission capacity and real-world demand is felt in nearly every single Air Force mission set today. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson’s call to grow the number of squadrons speaks to this challenge.
No mission area exemplifies this struggle better than airborne long-range strike. The Air Force faces a surge in demand for bombers, with a senior leader recently explaining that combatant command demand for the type has gone up 1,100% in recent years. However, the service is struggling to meet this requirement given that it is operating the smallest bomber fleet it has fielded since the Great Depression—157 aircraft. They have been used in every post-Cold War conflict going back to Operation Desert Storm and have proved vital to deterring adversaries. It is no mistake that bomber deployments are a frequent response to antagonistic actions by Russia, China, North Korea, and other potential adversaries. Their presence is an unmistakable signal of American resolve.
While all of this paints a stark picture, the good news is that a pathway exists for the Air Force to grow its bomber force. With the production of the B-21 slated to begin in the next few years, the service can grow its bomber force. This will require retaining and modernizing the B-1B, B-2, and B-52, with B-21s procured additively. The Mitchell Institute believes a realistic inventory goal for the Air Force bomber force is 270 aircraft. This figure, developed before this week’s force structure announcements, dovetails very closely with the topline vector put forth by the Air Force. The report provides an option on how to attain this goal in an effective, prudent fashion.