Air Force Global Strike Command Commander General Timothy Ray has said the US Air Force (USAF) needs to dramatically expand its bomber fleet to get to a ‘low-risk posture’.
Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air-Space and Cyber Conference Ray said: “There are currently only 156 US strategic bombers. But studies have shown that between 225 and 386 are needed to get the US to the low-risk posture.”
The USAF’s 156 strategic bombers form one-third of the US nuclear triad alongside land-launched nuclear missiles and nuclear-armed submarines. Ray stressed the importance of the US maintaining and expanding its bomber force as it is one of the few nuclear-armed NATO members to still operate strategic bombers.
Talking about the range of nuclear deterrence available to the US and Allies, Ray said: “there’s no coalition capability in this mission set,” with most US allies operating seaborne nuclear weapons like the UK’s Trident continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.
The USAF currently operates B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers all of which are ageing. Ray added this capability gap would continue with Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider not yet having entered production. Ray said that the older planes are “not very easy to work with.”
Ray added that the USAF was looking into how the bomb bay on a B-1 bomber could be modified to carry between four and eight large hypersonic weapons going forward.
Ray told the conference that modernising the nuclear triad was important to maintaining the US deterrence, but that modernisation is needed to maintain its strength. Ray called the triad the “cornerstone of the free world”.
Ray added: “When I think of our triad, we have promised the extended deterrence of all of our allies in Europe and in the Pacific, so whatever we do to our triad does not live in a vacuum.”
The US has committed funding to modernising the nuclear triad. Ray said it was important in the meantime that the US effectively uses its current assets “until we get ourselves to the new capacity”.
Ray described the triad as a “stabilising factor” in the presence of China and Russia upgrading their nuclear deterrents on a wholesale basis.
The US nuclear triad consists of nuclear devices capable of being delivered from land, air and sea using a mix of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers and submarines, most of which are ageing.
The last upgrade to the US ICBM arsenal was in the 1970s when the USAF upgraded to the Minuteman III. There are plans to replace the nearly 50-year old missiles.
The seaborne nuclear weapons are housed on Ohio-class Submarines that entered service in the 1980s and are set to be replaced by Columbia-class submarines which are set to begin production in 2021.