The Air Force Made Its Bombers More Vulnerable

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

Harold Hutchison · Dec. 11, 2019

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.

Click here to show comments

Facts over Fear
Stay current with America’s News Digest.