December 11, 2019

The Air Force Made Its Bombers More Vulnerable

The retirement of the AGM-86C missile is a step in the wrong direction for capability.

The Air Force recently announced the retirement of its last AGM-86C Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles. There is no ready replacement for these systems. The AGM-86C packed 3,000 pounds of high explosive and could hit targets up to 750 miles away. To put it mildly, it leaves a mark.

But the real problem with retiring this missile is it makes the force of B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers more vulnerable. The missile used to replace this missile, the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile — Extended Range (JASSM-ER) — has a shorter range (600 miles) and packs only 1,000 pounds of explosive. Its only advantage is that it is stealthy.

Here’s the big problem — while the missiles may be stealthy, the B-52 is anything but stealthy. In fact, it’s a very visible airplane. They’re also no spring chickens, the last one being built in 1962 — the year the Cuban Missile Crisis took place. Plus, according to an Air Force fact sheet, there are only 58 B-52H bombers in active service. And now, thanks to the retirement of the AGM-86C, this small force now has to come in about 150 miles closer to the enemy than they did before to fire a missile with a less powerful warhead.

You might ask, “What difference can 150 miles make?” The answer: A lot. This is for several reasons: First is the nature of the B-52 makes it perhaps the most vulnerable bomber in the American arsenal. It is slow (a top speed of 650 miles per hour). Now, the B-2’s top speed is listed by the Air Force as “high subsonic,” but remember that the B-2 has stealth technology — the B-52 doesn’t.

It also makes defending targets more difficult. To protect against the AGM-86C, a potential adversary must keep the launching aircraft out of almost 1.77 million square miles. To protect against the AGM-158B JASSM-ER, though, that same adversary needs to only secure about 1.13 million square miles.

This is not to say the JASSM-ER is not a good buy for the United States military — on the contrary, it’s low-observable technology and the fact it can be carried by not just bombers like the B-52, but fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet, makes it a very valuable system. But the fact is, when an adversary has about 35% less area to defend, his job has become simpler. Why would we do that? If anything, we should be working to give the B-52 weapons with even more range, to make the enemy’s job harder.

To make matters worse, the Department of Defense retired the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), a stealthy cruise missile with a nuclear warhead, in 2012. This missile could have been modified for conventional warheads, giving the B-52 a weapon with a heavier punch — and maybe even provide longer range (it could hit targets 365 miles farther away than the AGM-86A/B ALCM). Talk about a missed opportunity.

The B-52 is supposed to stay in service for another 30 years (to the 2050s — possibly beyond). While it’s had many improvements over its time in service, its best defense is to hit America’s enemies from a distance. The retirement of the AGM-86C is a step in the wrong direction — and places those Patriots who operate this magnificent plane at greater risk. That is unacceptable, and should be rectified as soon as possible.

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