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Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1987-88

Sowing the Seams

Strategic Bombers Versus Follow-on Forces

Col Martin T. Daack

FOR THE foreseeable future, the most dangerous adversaries facing the United States and its allies are likely to be "organized, equipped, trained, tactically schooled in Soviet military concepts."1 A basic tenet of Soviet-style warfare is the employment of massed, mechanized, combined arms units of armor, infantry, artillery, and integral air defense. Airborne and airmobile forces, as well as offensive and defensive air forces, round out the combined arms team.

The Soviet operational model depends upon mobility, mass, maneuver, and momentum. Its theoretical tactics revolve around superior numbers and firepower, gaining and maintaining offensive momentum to advance 30 to 50 kilometers a day.2 Momentum is sustained by multiple echelons that can "pass through or around the first echelon, join the fight with fresh forces, and press on to achieve and maintain continuous operations."3

The US Army doctrine for countering this Soviet-style threat is outlined in Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations. Called AirLand Battle doctrine, the concept focuses on destroying the momentum, tempo, and coherence upon which the Soviet model relies.4 To accomplish this, the US Army depends heavily upon air power. Air strikes help to "feed the enemy to the Army in bitesized chunks" by delaying, disrupting, or destroying the uncommitted enemy echelons while isolating committed forces so they can be destroyed.5 Targets range from just beyond friendly artillery range to deep interdiction.

On the other hand, Air Force doctrine states that "the first consideration in employing aerospace forces is gaining and maintaining the freedom of action to conduct operations against the enemy."6 This priority counterair mission will leave fewer resources initially dedicated to the ground battle, placing Army and Air Force doctrine at odds.

This paper proposes a way to redress this doctrinal mismatch by employing strategic bombers in the ground-attack role to delay, disrupt, detour, and destroy follow-on echelons of enemy armor and infantry during the first few critical hours and days of a major conflict. Since tactical air forces initially will be engaged in the air superiority battle, the use of bombers in a theater role against the closest follow-on forces will afford the timely application of firepower required to dovetail interservice doctrines. This proposal capitalizes on the strengths of bombers while working within survival limitations in the lethal environment of a Soviet-style combined arms attack. This proposal is designed using only conventional munitions, with no tactical or strategic nuclear weapons employed by either side.

Why the Heavy Bomber?

The thought of enemy armored divisions crashing echelon after echelon against US and allied defenders is sobering. However, armored units are not omnipotent. According to Field Manual 100-5, "They are vulnerable in close terrain, such as forests and cities, and in limited-visibility conditions. They cannot cross most rivers and swamps without bridging, and they require substantial logistical support."7 For instance, there is a substantial problem involved in trying to refuel and rearm tank columns, especially while fighting in urban areas. The judicious use of air power can capitalize upon these limitations to create a favorable tempo in the battle while denying engagement to the enemy by destroying bridges, fords, railways, or roadways to force him into difficult or impassable terrain; by mining advantageous avenues of approach and chokepoints; and by destroying as many enemy forces as possible before they can close with friendly ground forces.

The most judicious use of air power while tactical fighter aircraft conduct the initial airspace control battle is to use strategic bombers to "sow the seams" to isolate enemy follow-on echelons from friendly forces and from each other through the use of gravity bombs, air-scatterable mines, and standoff munitions. This concept is consistent with the first dictum of antimechanized operations: "to destroy the combined arms integrity of the enemy at all levels while keeping the combined arms integrity of your force intact."8 The concept is also in keeping with Air Force doctrine calling for employing aerospace power as an indivisible entity.9

Traditionalists initially would use bombers strictly in deep-interdiction missions against strategic logistics bases, railroads, highway networks, and economic targets. However, the time-critical nature of the immediate ground threat and the potential requirement to resort to tactical nuclear weapons should a follow-on attack succeed dictate that these limited, high-leverage bombing platforms be used more flexibly and closer in.

Bombers envisioned in this proposal include the B-52G/H, the B-1B, and the advanced technology bomber (ATB). These aircraft have inherent advantages in area-denial missions and in attacking massed formations. In the first place, their radars and terrain-following equipment allow for ingress, strike, and egress day or night in all weather conditions at low altitude (below 300 feet), thus reducing or eliminating detection from ground-based threats. Self-contained electronic countermeasures also allow the bombers to jam enemy radars, screening the bombers' approach. In addition, the low radar cross section of the B-1B in a head-on, nonradiating mode--about the same as an F-16 (one square meter)--and the stealth characteristics of the ATB further enhance the survival of these new systems.

Perhaps the greatest attributes of strategic bombers are their range and payload. B-52s are capable of low-level attack at 390 knots, while the B-1B can exceed 500 knots. These aircraft can deliver 60,000 to 70,000 pounds of general purpose bombs, cluster bombs, mines, and standoff munitions at unrefueled ranges of over 6,000 nautical miles. A single B-52 can carry a combined internal and external load of twenty-seven 500- or 750-pound bombs and twenty-four Gator mine pods A B-lB can carry thirty-two Gator mines or up to eighty-four 500-pound bombs internally.10 ATB specifications are classified but are assumed to equal or exceed the B-1B.

These characteristics theoretically enable a single bomber to carry what could require up to an entire squadron of fighter-type aircraft. Further, their range allows the flexibility and security of deep-rear basing or of flanking enemy defenses. When we consider forward-based bombers, range equates to long loiter time, which could translate to immediate strikes on lucrative targets by bombers orbiting just outside lethal areas. When flown in concert with air-to-air and air-to-ground suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), bombers can enhance their probability of success and survivability.

Campaign Planning and Execution

In order to use bombers effectively in a formally planned, conventional scenario, commanders and planners must be certain that the bombers and crews will be available to the theater/joint forces commander. The best way to ensure this is to assign the bombers to the operational command of the theater commander at the outset of the war by means of a change of operational control (CHOP). These can be either dedicated conventional or dual-role B-52s, B-1Bs, and ATBs. Incorporating these bombers in theater operation will require peacetime practice between tactical aircraft, bomber and command and control entities. The rise of not having all bombers available for the nuclear single integrated operational plan (SIOP) will be offset if their implementation in a theater conventional war will keep the conflict from going nuclear.

Planners must be intimately familiar with both the characteristics of combined arm forces and the theater terrain--where the enemy armor/mechanized forces cannot go and where they must go. Planners then can select optimum target areas to block, detour and set up the advancing forces for destruction.

Natural barriers afford the most efficient obstacles. Combined with man-made barriers, these channel the enemy where and when you want him. For instance, if an advancing force must cross a river, bombing all bridges and cratering and mining fords will create impassable barriers and force the enemy to halt and mass into a desirable "killing zone." Knowing the prime avenues of approach, bombers can strike prior to the enemy force advancing on the crossing rather than having to overfly a heavily defended site. The enemy also can be detoured to a place of our choosing by not destroying or mining selected bridges and fords. He would then be forced either to move to the area we elect or to delay his advance to reconstruct destroyed crossing sites. In either case, his momentum and timing would be adversely affected.

A valuable lesson in delaying tactics can be learned from Allied attempts to cross the Roer River in February 1945. German engineers destroyed the floodgates on river dams and created a flood lasting two weeks, preventing Lt Gen William Simpson's US Ninth Army from fording the river. According to Gen Omar Bradley, this "slow-leak" technique was much more effective than blasting entire dams and causing a violent but brief torrent.11 This same technique can be employed today to create a barrier to enemy bridging and fording attempts by using munitions that are either delivered by air with precision guidance or put in place during Ranger-type operations on the ground.

These munitions also can be used to create chokepoints. Valleys between steep hills, mountain passes, routes flanked by impassable terrain (rivers, bogs, etc.), and urban areas can form natural chokepoints or become chokepoints with the delivery of air-scatterable mines and the bombing and cratering of roads, railroads, tunnels, and so forth. A few bombers can sow minefields hundreds of meters wide and long, denying access to advancing columns. Even with mine-clearing techniques, the enemy will be forced to funnel through, gather behind, or detour around the chokepoints. In the least case, he will lose the momentum and timing of his attack. In the best case, he will present a lucrative "killing zone," to be exploited further by bombers delivering wide-area munitions. In the meantime, each minefield crossed should cause more enemy attrition.

Before enemy follow-on forces can join the battle, they must maneuver from rear echelon locations into an attacking position. For their own protection, enemy forces will not willingly "bunch up" in "killing zones" that are easily identified and attacked. The bombers can aid in forcing the enemy to congregate in numbers and areas not of his choosing. This can be accomplished only by carefully planning and precisely executing well-rehearsed, coordinated bomber attacks on follow-on echelon targets.

Integrating bomber missions with SEAD missions will ensure the mass, economy of force, and surprise necessary to overcome sophisticated, Soviet-style air defenses. This frees fighters for the air superiority battle while bombers simultaneously strike the close-in second echelon. Tactics must be practiced often on ranges in the continental United States and, where possible, in the proposed theater of operations to develop and hone the composite strike force concepts. Additionally, bombers must develop independent tactics for those missions where range or weather prevent composite operations. Bomber attrition is a vital concern, but the cost of not employing these systems may well outweigh combat losses. The key is to reduce attrition to an acceptable level throughout the campaign.

Think Crecy, Survival, and Self-Defense

Due to the carnage and confusion envisioned along the forward line of troops (FLOT), no aircraft--fighter or bomber, friend or foe--will survive for long flying directly over the FLOT. Likewise, flying directly over the enemy follow-on echelons, especially for more than one pass, will probably be terminal for the aircrew. Therefore, the problem is how to solve the time-critical, follow-on echelon dilemma using strategic bombers without committing suicide.

A lesson can be taken from the Battle of Crecy in 1346, when English archers using the longbow with its cloth-yard shaft (37-inch arrow) defeated the "combined arms army" of the day, crossbow-wielding Genoese infantry and mounted French knights. English bowmen rapidly firing long-range, accurate missiles prevented closure between the forces and spelled defeat for a superior French force.12 In a similar vein, bombers launching accurate, wide-area, standoff munitions can "sow the seams" and wreak havoc on massed enemy echelons from outside lethal air defense range. Used in the way, bombers can safely create and then exploit "killing zones."

If a serious airborne or ground-based defense threat is anticipated, bombers should be part of a composite strike force. However, bomber tactics away from lethal defenses can include direct overflight of the target employing either single aircraft or several aircraft striking nearly simultaneously from multiple axes. Survival can be enhanced by low-level, terrain-following air strikes and by passive self-defense (flares, chaff, and electronic countermearsures). An alternatives, consistent with independent bomber strikes, is the equip the bombers with lethal self-defense, including antiradiation and air-to-air missiles. These additions to the bombers' arsenal can enhance survival, especially when the bombers are flown beyond fighter coverage, such as in Southwest Asia.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Faced with a determined, powerful combined arms enemy force, US and allied ground commanders need immediate support against the echeloned follow-on forces. Currently, Air Force doctrine gives priority to air superiority missions. This may leave the Army "naked" against the close-in threat. The range, payload, and munitions menu of bombers make them an ideal choice to destroy Soviet-style tactics, tempo, and troops. Bombers employing low-level tactics and carrying precision standoff, gravity, or air-scatterable munitions can effectively delay, disrupt, detour, or destroy the attackers before they can close with friendly forces.

As indicated, the Soviet model of warfare stresses attacking with massed combined arms units. These units must come together in rear assembly areas and move forward in concert to attack. One or two bombers can wreak havoc on enemy columns on road march. Bombers striking staging areas and critical rail and road networks can also prevent or delay the linkup of enemy units. Early identification of these targets can lead to preplanned, deeper strikes at the outset of hostilities, complicating enemy command and control. Psychological disruption and confusion can be as crucial as physical destruction when enemy success depends upon the timing and mass of their attack. Once located, individual units can be further isolated using bombing and mining techniques to create barriers and chokepoints.

Integrated tactics using composite forces of fighters and bombers to simultaneously strike enemy air threats and the follow-on echelons can close the interservice doctrinal gap and support the Army's doctrine. Further, bombers can operate singly or in cell, independently from fighters if weather or range prohibits composite operations. This capability is especially important when the only alternative might be for the allied forces to resort to nuclear weapons to halt the onslaught.

Current munitions, command relationships, and tactics need to be refined for bombers to be effective against Soviet-style forces. We must develop new generations of accurate standoff munitions for use when lethal air defenses prevent target overflight, as well as new air-scatterable munitions capable of halting armor, mechanized artillery, and personnel. Finally, bombers should be modified to carry self-defense weapons and tactics should be developed for their use against enemy air and ground threats.

Command relationships that place bombers under the operational control of theater commanders for timely execution and control must be developed and agreed upon before bombers can be thoroughly integrated into conventional warfighting plans. Then planners must develop target packages and strike tactics for use in lethal and nonlethal conventional environments. Both fighter and bomber units must practice the new tactics and operations together, under realistic conditions, to perfect the skills and timing required to conduct composite air strikes. In this way, the B-52s, B-1Bs, and ATBs can accomplish the mission of halting follow-on forces and can correct the mismatch between Air Force and Army doctrines.


1. FM 71-100, Armored and Mechanized Division Operations, 29 September 1978, 2-1.

2. Ibid., 2-3.

3. Ibid.

4. FM 100-5, Opeations, 5 May 1986, 14.

5. US Army Forces (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1985), 5-1.

6. AFM 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force, 16 March 1981, 2-11.

7. FM 100, 5, 42.

8. Christopher R. Gabel, "Seek, Strike, and Destroy: U.S. Army Tank Doctrine in World War II," Leavenworth Papers (Ft. Leavenworth, Kans.: US Army Command General Staff College, September 1985), 71.

9. AFM 1-1, 10, 11.

10. Lt Col John E. Frisby and Maj Grover E. Myers, Strategy Forces in Transition: A Doctrine for Indivisible Aerospace Application (Maxwell AFB, Ala: Air University Press, 1985, 138-40.

11. Gen Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, A General's Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 395-96.

12. Lynn Montross, War Through the Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 167-72.


Col Martin T. Daack (USAFA; MBA, University of Colorado) is deputy commander for operations, 43d Bombardment Wing (SAC), Anderson AFB, Guam. A command pilot with 3,300 flying hours, including 670 combat hours, he has served as the assistant director of operations and chief, Facilities and Equipment Services Branch, Air Force Materials Laboratory, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; as a strategic offense mission area operations research analysts with the Capability Assessment Division, Directorate of Plans, Headquarters USAF; and as commander, 97th Air Refueling Squadron, Blytheville AFB, Arkansas. Colonel Daack a graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air War College and a distinguished graduate of Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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