Air Force Chief Calls New Bomber a ‘Must-Have Capability’

Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. -- The Air Force chief of staff on Tuesday said that despite a threat of continued sequestration or other deep budget cuts in coming years, he regards the service’s next nuclear-armed bomber aircraft as a necessary expenditure.

“The Long-Range Strike bomber program is one of our top three programs,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, who has served as the top U.S. air officer since August 2012. “It is a must-have capability.”

Other modernization priorities for the Air Force include new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and KC-46 aerial refueling planes.

The Air Force expects to purchase 80 to 100 of the new bombers, beginning sometime after 2020. The service has requested $379 million for research and development of the Long-Range Strike bomber in fiscal 2014. Annual expenditures for the stealthy aircraft could reach $10 billion by 2021, Defense Department leaders have told Capitol Hill.

The service head’s remarks this week followed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s warning last month -- as he unveiled the results of his “Strategic Choices and Management Review” -- about a stark determination to be made in the nuclear-modernization arena.

Hagel said that congressionally mandated spending cuts could force the Defense Department to either buy a limited fleet of new bombers or maintain larger quantities of aging nuclear-capable aircraft, with few or no modern replacements.

Welsh suggested that the Air Force could not afford to compromise on ensuring that it can continue to hit targets at long range, a capability that he called “foundational” to his service. He reiterated the remarks in Wednesday testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

“Global Strike will continue to be a focus area,” the service chief said on Tuesday, speaking at an Air Force Association symposium just outside of Washington.

Welsh also underscored the importance of maintaining high standards in his service’s day-to-day handling of nuclear weapons, following a new report last month of failed ICBM unit inspections at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. That was the second such incident in the past six months, following insufficient ICBM readiness drill results at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in March.

“The nuclear mission -- continuing to strengthen the enterprise -- is still our No. 1 priority in the United States Air Force and it will remain that way,” Welsh said at the AFA event. “In our nuclear inventory, we have two-thirds of the triad that provides nuclear deterrence for the United States of America. That’s a huge responsibility.”

The Air Force has sought to strengthen its nuclear training and operations over roughly the past five years. The initiative followed an accidental 2006 shipment of warhead fuses to Taiwan and a mistaken bomber transport of six atomic-armed cruise missiles across several U.S. states the following year.

The service created its Global Strike Command in 2008 to oversee nuclear-armed bomber and ICBM units.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Welsh told the conference audience. “We can’t ever afford to get this wrong.”

During a separate Tuesday session at the same forum, Maj. Gen. Sandra Finan implied that the recent ICBM readiness-inspection failures reflect her service’s dedication to holding its personnel to high performance standards.

“We do demand perfection in the nuclear enterprise,” said Finan, who commands the Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. “To be honest with you, the nuclear enterprise is not for everybody, because you have to be detail-oriented. You have to pay attention to everything you do, because everything you do matters.”