It may surprise many, but today’s Air Force cannot hold every contested
target at risk, a fundamental strategic goal. Last week, Air Force
Secretary Michael Donley and other senior leaders at the Air Force
Association’s annual air and space conference made a clear and compelling
case for long-range strike.

The Air Force plans to fund the entire long-range strike family of systems
program in the special access, or black, budget. To keep the new bomber
affordable, the Air Force also plans to introduce technology at lower
readiness levels (i.e., six and seven) and insert greater capabilities as
they come online. Systems engineering will be done up front. The goal is
to incorporate low-risk technology sooner, rather than build an exquisite
solution later.

That approach may turn out to be the Air Force’s greatest missed
opportunity in a half century. Due to budget constraints alone, it seems
the Air Force may build a less than 80% solution when the service in fact
needs a next-generation capability. This is primarily because precision
munitions and battle networks are proliferating, while advances in radar
and electro-optical technology are increasingly rendering stealth less

Since a new long-range strike capability is the Air Force’s marquee
modernization program for the next 20 years, its leaders should push the
envelope, seize the moment, and build what is needed while balancing what
is affordable. The Air Force must think big and go bold when innovating
for the future.

On top of this, the new bomber will have to rely on modernized electronic
attack and space-based systems but current budget projections offer no
guarantee those systems will exist. The service plans to develop a
communications network as well as electronic attack capabilities alongside
the new bomber.

Fast-shrinking military budgets leave the Air Force planning to build a
new long-range strike capability that is better than what is currently
available … but less than a next-generation leap forward.

While this approach may keep costs down in the short-term, U.S.
military technological superiority is declining across the board.
America’s military is approaching strategic parity in select capability
sets relative to others around the world now. That’s dangerous.

To keep our edge, we need to design and build truly transformational
platforms and technologies immediately — and not let falling budgets
paralyze defense innovation.