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As the UK enters the third decade of the 21st century, it is confronted by a strategic system in flux. This is particularly highlighted by the resurgence of great power rivalry, the renewed Russian threat to regional and international security, the shifting global balance of power from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, the rise of China as a global power, regional instability in the Middle East, and wider geopolitical shifts. This is compounded by the Trump Administration’s approach to foreign policy, particularly it’s attitude towards arms control and reported interest in resuming nuclear testing, and the potential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is likely that defence budgets will come under intense pressure due to the economic impact of the pandemic, however, given the deteriorating geopolitical environment, significant defence cuts may only serve to embolden potential adversaries seeking to change local or, indeed, the international status quo. Moreover, the UK itself is at a critical strategic juncture with the opportunities inherent in its withdrawal from the European Union. Ahead of the forthcoming Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review, discussion of the UK’s strategic priorities and balance of capabilities is warranted. In this regard, this article considers whether the UK should invest in a more substantial long-range strike capability, namely some form of bomber.
The evolving strategic environment and its implications
The development of a long-range bomber capability would constitute a significant investment and a marked shift in the composition of British airpower. The UK retired its last dedicated long-range bomber, the Vulcan, in 1984, but has retained an interest in a long-range strike capability since. This has included the use of the Tornado for long-range strike operations including with the Storm Shadow stand-off cruise missile, as part of the abortive Future Offensive Air System programme to replace the Tornado, and the potential integration of the Storm Shadow with the cancelled Nimrod MRA4. Andrew Brookes, writing in RUSI’s World Defence Systems in August 2003 stated with regard to the latter: ‘With its range of over 6,000nm, the datalink equipped Nimrod MRA4 positioned at six facilities could provide almost global strike coverage when armed with five Storm Shadows and supported by in-flight refuelling’. Whilst in June 2020, Air Marshal (ret’d) Greg Bagwell, writing in Air Forces Monthly, stated:
So, do I think the UK or countries like it should invest in their own 21st-century bombers? Well, I can certainly see value in having the ability to launch larger numbers of smart weapons from larger platforms, but I do not see the need for an expensive, niche platform able to penetrate sophisticated enemy defences.Air Marsal (Retd) Greg Bagwell
In considering whether the UK should invest in a long-range bomber, three particular factors warrant discussion: the evolving strategic system and its implications; recent operational experience and the prospective operating environment; and the direction of British national policy in the coming decades.
The strategic environment is characterised by uncertainty, including a core principle underpinning British strategic thinking since the end of the Second World War: the reliability of the US as the ‘guarantor’ of international security. The actions of the Trump administration, for example, with regard to military threats against Iran, including the June 2019 crisis following Iran’s downing of a Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle (UAV), and the January 2020 crisis following the US assassination of General Soleimani, strategic arms control (highlighted by the US approach toward renewing the New START treaty with Russia), and wider questions concerning President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, raise questions over the reliability of the US in the event of a crisis. Moreover, the rise of China, and with it, the re-emergence of a bipolar international system, and US efforts to China’s growing power and influence may also pose a dilemma for the UK. This is particularly with regard to the potential for US pressure on Russia and China serving as a stimulus for enhanced strategic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.
Russia poses the greatest threat to the UK, and international security more broadly, as it seeks to challenge the post-Cold War international order and reassert its position as a great power. Although the weakness of the Russian economy and industrial base has prevented Moscow from achieving the full extent of its military ambitions, it is nonetheless making significant progress in the modernisation of its armed forces. This is particularly evident in the progress Moscow is making in the development of a robust long-range precision strike capability, which will enable Russia to prosecute targets on land and at sea across the Euro-Atlantic, including from deep within Russian territory. The Russian challenge is not restricted to Europe; Moscow has a military presence in Syria, is looking to develop military bases in Venezuela and or Cuba, and is developing a presence in Africa, namely in Libya and potentially Mozambique.
In the Middle East, Iran and its proxies pose a significant threat to regional security and British interests, most recently highlighted by Iran’s seizure in July 2019 of a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero. The possibility that Iran or a proxy, such as Hezbollah, would target British interests or forces in the region directly cannot be dismissed, and given the Iranian ballistic and cruise missile threat and the capabilities of its proxies, British military operations in the region, including from RAF Akrotiri, could be significantly disrupted. In addition, terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State continue to operate in the Middle East and North Africa. More broadly, the UK is committed to contributing to the security of the global rules-based order, including in the Asia-Pacific where the UK has significant interests.
In contrast to recent operations, that is, since the end of the Cold War, a future crisis with Russia or a regional power such as Iran, would see contested access to the theatre of operations from the start. In Russia’s case, this would include the threat of direct attack on the UK itself. The issue of access, basing and overflight (ABO) can be problematic. For example, attempts to secure basing rights in Italy for operations over Bosnia in the early 1990s were problematic (a planned US deployment of F-117 strike aircraft was refused); and the deployment of HMS Invincible for Operation Bolton in the Persian Gulf in November 1997 was the result of a failure to secure overflight rights in the Middle East which prevented RAF Tornados from deploying to the region.
Initial operations over Afghanistan in 2001 had to be conducted from aircraft carriers and by long-range bombers due to an absence of regional basing for tactical aircraft; securing ABO from Turkey for Operation Telic was difficult; and despite being a close ally, Oman did not permit combat aircraft to be based on its territory for operations over Afghanistan. In 2011, friction between the British and Italian authorities nearly resulted in the withdrawal of basing rights at Gioia del Colle – the main base for RAF Typhoon and Tornado operations over Libya. Moreover, Operation Allied Force over Yugoslavia in 1999 and Ellamy against Libya in 2011 required extended-range sorties: the former, 3,500 nautical mile round-trips by Tornados from Germany, and the latter, ‘3,000-mile (4,800km) round trips from the UK’, again by Tornados. In this regard, it warrants noting that Olenogorsk airbase on the Kola peninsula, and home to Russian Aerospace Forces’ Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers, is over 2,000 km from RAF Lossiemouth. Whilst there are allied airbases in Norway and in Sweden and Finland (access would be contingent on whether Sweden and Finland remained neutral in the event of conflict, the operational availability of those bases could not be guaranteed, especially in the opening phase of a war with Russia.
The UK again faces the challenge of having to balance the requirements of countering the Russian threat in the Euro-Atlantic against those of protecting wider global interests. In both cases, the UK requires broad-based capabilities and globally deployable, credible forces. Given the UK’s global interests and the national policy intent to maintain the ability to project power and influence globally, the issue of commitments versus resources will become even more pressing. It is likely that the forthcoming Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review will continue the UK’s national policy of maintaining a limited ability to project power globally and contribute to the security of the international rules-based order. The issue of commitments versus resources will become even more pressing, especially in light of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Conversely, the UK may follow Australia’s lead and opt to enhance its defence posture in response to the deteriorating strategic environment.
Developing a bomber capability
The deteriorating strategic environment, proliferation of precision strike systems and wider anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, and recent operational experience where ABO was problematic and extended-range sorties required, points to the potential need for the UK to possess a means of conducting long-range strike operations. Although, as demonstrated in Operations Allied Force and Ellamy, the UK can undertake long-range strike sorties, those were dependent on extensive air-to-air refuelling (AAR) support. In the event of conflict with Iran or especially Russia, AAR support may be limited. In this regard, Russia is developing and deploying long-range surface-to-air (such as the S-400 and S-500) and air-to-air missiles to target force enablers, such as AAR and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. Moreover, the payload of tactical aircraft such as the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Typhoon and the RAF/Royal Navy F-35B is limited, in particular for long-range strike: as with the Tornado, a Typhoon would typically carry two Storm Shadow cruise missiles. Aside from the Royal Navy’s submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, the UK has a very limited means of conducting strikes beyond 1,000 miles from a host air base or the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, without significant AAR support.
At present, the US would be expected to provide any large-scale strategic strike capability required for an operation. In this context, operational analysis following the 1998 Strategic Defence Review in support of decision making regarding the variant of F-35 to be acquired, indicated that the F-35B could reach 70 per cent of all targets that the UK would wish to hold at risk, the remaining 30 per cent could either be reached using Tomahawk or air-launched cruise missiles (such as Storm Shadow) or by the US (from authors’ interview with retired senior Royal Air Force officer, 17 June 2014). Although the UK would, in the event of, for example, conflict with Russia, be engaged in coalition operations, it would be unwise to base British strategy on the assumption that operations will only take place with allies and capability gaps can be tolerated. Moreover, given the evolving character of the strategic environment, it cannot be assumed that UK and US interests will always coincide, or circumstances allow for the US to necessarily provide in a timely manner an otherwise expected military contribution. What if the US was engaged in a war with North Korea and a crisis with Russia erupted in Europe?
The principal threat to the UK is posed by Russia, with threats to regional security in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific also warranting concern, given Britain’s interests in both those regions. North Africa is also an area of interest due to the presence of terrorist groups and Russian activity in Libya. Based on this geographic distribution, together with operational experience in Allied Force, Afghanistan, and Ellamy, an ability to prosecute targets at ranges of around 3,000 km would be valuable. From bases in the UK, this would cover a wide expanse of western Russia, whilst from RAF Akrotiri, it would cover the entire Middle East, southern Russia, the western half of Afghanistan, and a significant part of North Africa. AAR support would be required for operations from Diego Garcia. The use of stand-off weapons would further extend the reach of a UK long-range bomber.
A long-range bomber would, like the Queen Elizabeth-class, contribute alongside the carriers to the UK’s conventional strategic deterrent, through undertaking such roles as stand-off precision strike, maritime strike and naval mine laying, and if operating in permissive airspace, close air support. Other potential roles could include targeting deeply buried and hardened facilities, ISR and electronic warfare. Notably, Russia and the US are looking at incorporating an air-to-air missile capability in their respective developmental strategic bombers (the PAK DA and B-21 Raider). Central to the development of a long-range bomber would be balancing cost, capability and flexibility. There has been debate in Australia regarding the feasibility of joining the US B-21 Raider programme; should the UK also consider the B-21? The B-21 is intended to provide the US Air Force’s next-generation strategic stealth strike capability, and whilst providing a highly potent asset capable of penetrating otherwise denied airspace, it will also be highly expensive. The current B-2 Spirit stealth bomber has an availability rate of around 50 per cent and mission capable rate of 35 per cent, and whilst it is likely the B-21 will considerably improve on this, there is arguably a penalty incurred in terms of flexibility versus low observability. For example, the US Air Force’s new air-launched hypersonic missile, the AGM-183A, will be integrated with the B-52.
For the UK, there are four broad options for a long-range strike capability: a stand-off missile carrier; a penetrating bomber; an unmanned combat air vehicle; or an off-the-shelf acquisition. A stand-off missile carrier would provide perhaps the most affordable approach to the acquisition of a bomber capability and could either utilise an existing airframe or a purpose-built design. The following discussion focuses on developing a conventional long-range strike capability. The central role and importance of nuclear weapons in Russian strategy emphasises the continued importance of maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The question of whether the UK requires a second nuclear-capable system, such as an air-launched missile, to complement Trident, in particular to counter limited nuclear threats or use warrants examination but is beyond the scope of this article.
The Stand-off Missile Carrier
The feasibility of using the A-400M, C-130 and C-17 as cruise missile-equipped large, non-penetrating aircraft (LNPA) as part of the FOAS force mix was considered. In 1977, Boeing proposed, following the cancellation of the B-1A bomber programme in the US, the Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft (CMCA), a converted Boeing 747 freighter equipped with nine eight-round rotary launchers, as used in the B-52. This would enable a single CMCA to launch 72 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) from stand-off range. A CMCA could also form the basis for an ‘arsenal plane’, capable of delivering large quantities of precision-guided munitions. An additional advantage of utilising a Boeing 747-based platform would be the ability to utilise the aircraft’s external hardpoint on the port wing, originally designed to carry a spare engine. A Boeing 747-based airborne launch system, similar to that used by Virgin Orbit, could be utilised to launch a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) such as the US AGM-183A.
A stand-off missile carrier or arsenal aircraft could utilise either an existing design or be developed afresh, but that would reduce the affordability of the option. Such an aircraft would rely on stand-off weapons, although it could also provide a ‘bomb truck’ capability in permissive operating environments or following the degrading of an adversary’s air defence capabilities. A variant of the P-8 Poseidon could potentially be developed as a stand-off missile carrier/bomb truck. The P-8 has 11 hard points (five in its bomb bay, four under the wings and two under the fuselage) and is capable of carrying a payload of 10 tons: its unrefuelled range exceeds 4,000 nautical miles.
The Penetrating Bomber
There are two principal approaches to the acquisition of a penetrating long-range bomber capability open to the UK: the development of a strike derivative of the Tempest sixth-generation combat aircraft, or the development of a purpose-built long-range bomber. A Tempest strike derivative could follow the approach the US considered for a regional bomber capability in the 2000s. The US examined the development of a regional bomber derivative of the F-22 Raptor, the FB-22. Utilising a larger wing, and potentially a fuselage plug allowing for a two-seat cockpit and additional fuel, the FB-22 would have had a combat radius of 1,800 miles in contrast to the 800-mile combat radius of the F-22A. The FB-22’s payload capacity would also be significantly increased; its internal bay would be capable of holding up to two 5,000 lb bunker-buster weapons, whilst four hardpoints on the wings would carry weapons pods designed to hold two 2,000 lb bombs each whilst maintaining the aircraft’s low observability. A single FB-22 would be capable of carrying ten 2,000 lb weapons in the external pods and weapons bay; for missions where stealth was not required, the aircraft could deliver a payload of up to 30,000 lbs. A Tempest strike derivative would provide a high-end stealth strike capability and could also be utilised as a long-range interceptor, in particular to counter Russia’s air-launched cruise missile threat. Although a strike derivative of the Tempest would be costly, it would also likely attract interest from a number of countries including Australia and Japan.
The second option would be to develop a purpose-built long-range bomber. The Vulcan provides a useful benchmark for comparison: the Vulcan B Mk. 2 had a range of 4,600 miles, a maximum weight of 113 tons, and was powered by four Olympus engines each developing 20,000 lbs of thrust. In comparison, the Pratt and Whitney F-135 engine that powers the F-35 delivers more than 40,000 lbs of thrust. The aircraft had a payload of up to 21,000 lbs. The proposed Vulcan B Mk. 3 was intended to be armed with six Skybolt air-launched ballistic missiles, that is, a total payload of around 30 tons. A prospective long-range bomber with a combat radius of around 2,000 miles, payload of up to around 20 tons (enabling carriage of large weapons similar to the US GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator to counter deeply buried and hardened targets), and utilising technologies under development as part of Team Tempest, could be feasible. The Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire provides a valuable comparison: it has a maximum take-off weight of 126 tons, can carry a payload of up to 24 tons, and has a maximum range of around 4,350 miles. A payload of 24 tons would be equivalent to 16 Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
In contrast to the US B-21, Russian PAK DA, and Chinese H-20, which are intended to be large stealth bombers with ranges in excess of 6,000 miles, a British long-range bomber would be somewhat smaller. Notably, China is believed to be developing a regional bomber, which will reportedly be a relatively large, stealthy, twin-engine aircraft, possibly around 100 feet long with a maximum take-off weight of 60 to 100 tons, with a combat radius potentially around 1,500 miles (estimates vary between 1,000 and 2,000 miles). It will reportedly possess a long-range air-to-air missile capability. A notional British bomber would also, in the interest of affordability and flexibility (namely, the carriage of outsized external stores such as potential hypersonic missiles), not be a stealth aircraft. Rather, the aircraft could utilise electronic warfare and directed energy systems for self-defence (the Chinese H-20 will also reportedly feature this capability); MBDA is developing as part of Team Tempest, a Hard Kill Defensive Aid System, capable of ‘tracking, targeting and intercepting incoming missiles in high threat environments’. Together with stand-off weapons, and Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft (Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System Loyal Wingman will have a range in excess of 2,000 miles), it may be possible to operate in high-threat environments.
In July 2019, Air Vice Marshal Simon Rochelle, then Chief of Staff Capability, announced at the Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff’s Air and Space Power Conference, that the UK sought to deploy a hypersonic weapon by 2023. For the UK, hypersonic weapons would provide a means of responding, namely, to Russian A2/AD capabilities, naval forces, regional threats such as that posed by Iran, and in certain cases, non-state actors. In terms of mission, counterforce, maritime strike, and defeating high-value targets in support of theatre access, or the defence of the Euro-Atlantic, would be priorities. Hypersonic cruise missiles will be compatible with tactical aircraft such as the Typhoon and F-35 (albeit requiring external carriage), but their size will likely limit the number of weapons carried and divert those aircraft from other missions to which they are better suited.
Perhaps most importantly, the advanced manufacturing technologies and approach being developed in support of Team Tempest would be critical to ensuring the affordability of what would nonetheless require significant investment. It is likely that the development of a bomber would be comparable to, or surpass, for example, the cost of the Typhoon programme, or around £18 billion. By means of comparison, the unit cost of a B-1B is $317 million, or around £254 million; 60 aircraft at £255 million each would cost a total of £15.3 billion. In light of Australia’s interest in expanding its long-range strike capabilities, a joint UK-Australia programme could also perhaps be viable.
An Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicle
Building on the Taranis UCAV demonstrator, and other uninhabited air system research, the development of a UCAV with the required range, persistence and payload to operate in the long-range strike role, could be a viable option. Boeing proposed a strategic strike version of its X-45, the X-45D, in the 2000s to the US Air Force. An enlarged design, similar to the Northrop Grumman X-47B, would likely be capable of a mission radius in the 2,000-2,500 mile range, and carrying four 2,000 lb weapons internally or significantly more smaller weapons. To illustrate this, an F-35B can carry two 1,000 lb bombs or eight 285 lb small diameter bombs. A UCAV would be the stealthiest option and provide the capability to operate for extended periods within adversary airspace, but would it offer the same degree of flexibility as a crewed platform? It would likely require a high degree of autonomy to operate effectively; in this regard, artificial intelligence could be a critical enabler. A strategic UCAV could provide an ideal complement to a stand-off missile carrier or a bomber to form human-machine team.
An Off-the-Shelf Bomber
The UK could seek to join the US B-21 bomber programme, although this would be an extremely expensive option and would be unlikely to offer British industry the opportunities that a domestic programme would provide, even if the US allowed the aircraft to be exported. This would also be the case were the UK to look to acquire US B-1 or B-52 bombers; the US is looking to retire 17 B-1Bs in order to free up funds for the B-21. Moreover, those B-1Bs have been subject to considerable operational use causing airframe issues. If there were available B-52 airframes, the UK could join the US programme to buy new engines for the aircraft, thus extending its service life beyond the 2050s and significantly enhancing its performance. This would provide a potent stand-off missile carrier capability and bomb truck for operations in permissive airspace but would be dependent on the availability of surplus B-52s.
Of the above options, a stand-off missile carrier would be the most affordable (an off-the-shelf acquisition from the US could be quite competitive in cost terms too), whilst a Tempest strike derivative or purpose-built long-range bomber would be the most capable, but costly options. A Tempest strike derivative could provide a highly stealthy, deep strike capability, including a potential ability to prosecute hardened targets beyond what the UK can currently hold at risk, and an extended-range air-to-air capability, which would be particularly valuable vis-à-vis Russian stand-off missile-armed bombers. A purpose-built long-range bomber would provide greater range and payload, including an ability to carry large bunker-buster munitions and potential air-launched HGVs offering extended-range stand-off capabilities. A notional air-launched HGV could offer a means of prosecuting high-value and well-defended targets at ranges of 2,500 to 3,000 km, but would require a large aircraft as a launch platform. In this context, a mix of stand-off missile carriers and a Tempest strike derivative could provide a highly capable force mix with the former providing volume of fire and the latter an ability to operate in heavily defended airspace.
Although a strategic UCAV was discussed as a stand-alone option, it would provide a significant contribution to any proposed force mix, in particular, if also operating in the ISR role. This would provide a means of conducting counter-force operations against an adversary’s own long-range strike assets, a capability which would be especially valuable with respect to countering Russia’s burgeoning long-range strike forces. This also highlights the inherently multi and cross-domain contribution a long-range bomber capability could provide: for example, counter-force operations contribute to the air and missile defence of the UK or deployed forces and allies; whilst maritime strike aids in establishing sea control or denial. Moreover, an ability to launch large payloads, such as an HGV, could also be utilised as a means of launching small satellites, building on collaboration with Virgin Orbit as part of Team Artemis. Most significantly, a long-range bomber capability would provide synergy with the UK’s carrier airpower, constituting a potent conventional strategic deterrent and means of gaining theatre entry. Consider the impact on Russian thinking of a UK ability to deploy a carrier strike group into the Norwegian Sea, in conjunction with a force of UK-based long-range bombers capable of launching hundreds of stand-off weapons in a single salvo.
The development of a long-range bomber capability would require significant investment, which in the context of a markedly deteriorating economic situation due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, may seem foolish. However, as Australia recognises in its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the global strategic environment is becoming more contested and thus requires, in response, increased investment in defence, including long-range strike capabilities. In this respect, investing in developing an indigenous long-range bomber capability could be undertaken as part of a wider national economic strategy, including an industry 4.0 digital manufacturing drive. Further, the development of ground-launched long-range strike systems and expanded ship and submarine-launched long-range strike capability, should be considered as the UK looks to shape its armed forces for the coming decades. An ability to prosecute sustained, long-range strike operations against even peer adversaries would constitute a potent deterrent and credibly position the UK within coalitions, whether long-standing (NATO) or ad-hoc.
Ultimately, the UK requires versatile, flexible and adaptive forces, that provide the broadest range of credible options for responding to a highly dynamic strategic environment and contingencies across the spectrum from sub-threshold, ‘grey zone’ threats through to, in extremis, operations against Russia. Within this, an ability to project credible power to deter and if necessary, defeat even high-end threats is key. The UK depends on the effective operation of the global trading system for its prosperity, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, this system is vulnerable to disruption. Although the cost of investment in enhancing defence capabilities may be high, the costs of a failure of deterrence and the outbreak of major conflict in a region of British interest, let alone that of war with Russia, would be exponentially higher. Nor can the UK afford to base its strategic planning assumptions and capability decisions on relying on others, namely the US (a point made by Hugh White with regard to the defence of Australia). The development of a long-range bomber capability would provide the UK with an enhanced means of protecting and projecting its interests in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous strategic environment.