A B-2 flies to the North Pole last Oct. 27 on a test mission from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. A new study says the Air Force lacks adequate stealth aircraft to wage an air campaign against China or North Korea. (Bobbi Zapka / Air Force)
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The Air Force does not have enough stealth aircraft to wage an effective air campaign against China or North Korea, according to a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.
The F-22 fighter and B-2 bomber are the only Air Force aircraft that could penetrate China's sophisticated air defense system, the study found. Those aircraft would also conduct most of the airstrikes against North Korea, given that country's defenses.
"With only 185 F-22s and 20 B-2s, the United States has an extremely limited number of stealth aircraft that could participate in the first-wave assault," according to the study.
Moreover, the B-2 has been out of production for more than a decade, so any combat losses could not be replaced, according to the study. And the vastness of the Pacific region would limit how many F-22s could be used at any given time.
"If a wing of seventy-two F-22 fighters was based at a distance of 1,500 nautical miles from the combat zone — roughly the distance between Anderson Air Force Base on Guam to the South China Sea — only six aircraft could be kept over the battle area at a given time," the study says.
Any air campaign would require hitting multiple targets at once, and the average theater campaign has 30,000 targets, according to the study. It is not financially feasible to hit that many targets with expensive stand-off weapons, such as cruise missiles.
"It is important to consider that hundreds of aircraft-dropped GPS-guided bombs, such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, can be acquired for the cost of one stand-off cruise missile," the study says.
The study recommends the Obama administration and Congress invest heavily in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the KC-46 tanker, the next-generation bomber, F-22 modernization and "long-range, low-observable, carrier-based strike platforms."
In an email response on the study's conclusions, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefaniak said, "To deliver the capabilities required by the new strategic guidance and remain within funding constraints, the Air Force reassessed how to most effectively and efficiently posture its forces for the future security environment.
"With the DoD strategic shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific region while continuing its focus on the Middle East and adapting to an evolving strategic posture in Europe, the Air Force is emphasizing the increasing importance of global power projection and is posturing for the future in a way that maintains our ability to be agile, flexible and ready to engage a full range of contingencies and threats."
Working with the rest of the U.S. military, the Air Force currently has the ability to prevail in a conflict in any of the potential hotspots across the globe, said Mark Gunzinger, who served as a senior advisor to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
Gunzinger, who is also a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources, now works at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.
Looking to the future, the Air Force and the other services risk losing their advantage because they have too few long-range aircraft and other weapons, such as bombers, carrier-based aircraft and cruise missiles, Gunzinger said.
"We're on the path toward building too much short-range capability vice the longer range, longer endurance capabilities that we might need in the future — especially when you consider the geographic challenges of the Pacific and the fact that we may not have bases in the Persian Gulf region as available as they've been in the past," he said.
Threat to tankers
Long-range strike would be a key capability in a future conflict with Iran, which is developing cruise and ballistic missiles to attack any U.S. air bases in neighboring countries, preventing U.S. aircraft from being forward deployed, Gunzinger said. That would pose a tough problem for the Air Force.
While the F-22 and F-35 can penetrate air defense systems, they are not a long-range aircraft, meaning they would need to be refueled — and that would be impossible over enemy airspace because the tankers would be shot out of the sky, Gunzinger said.
Meanwhile, the B-52 and B-1 bombers cannot penetrate advanced air defense systems, so that would mean the Air Force's 20 B-2 bombers would be the only aircraft capable of striking Iran in such a future conflict, he said.
The AEI study brings up the bigger issue of whether the U.S. will ever get into a conflict with China. That's not a likely scenario, said Mieke Eoyang of Washington-based think tank Third Way.
"As I've said to others, your banker doesn't go to war with you to get the mortgage back," she said in an email. "They just want you to keep making the payments. At this point, our economies are so intertwined that a war would be devastating to both nations. So you have to ask, are there any US security interests at stake with China that are worth tanking our economy over, not to mention the cost in lives and treasure?"