Air University Review, July-August 1982

Long-Range Combat Aircraft
and Rapid Deployment Forces

Lieutenant Colonel William R. Liggett

Between 1978 and 1981, leadership in the United Stated was awakened to the need for a strategy and capability for protecting U.S. vital interests in the Third World. The objective area for protection are regions of the world where interests vital to the Untied States and her allies have been placed at peril. The source of this peril has been the growth of Soviet power-projection capability. Irrefutable examples of this evolution of Soviet doctrine and policy are evident in their "willingness . . .to exercise military power indirectly through both the application of military assistance and the use of Cuban and other surrogates in parts of Latin America and Africa and even directly in the December 1979 invasion and continuing occupation are ". . . the first offensive combat use of soviet military forces outside the borders of the Warsaw pact since World War II."1

The instrument of this U.S. strategy for the protection of vital interests is the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), which is an organizational structure for the command of armed forces drawn from conventional units of all the services. The exact makeup of the rapid deployment forces (RDF) will be based on the nature of the conflict. "While the potential missions of the rapid deployment forces are global, in practice most of the planning and programming had focused on Southwest Asia."2

Speaking of the RDF task, Major General Larry D. Welch,* then Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Tactical Air Command, cited four problems that almost axiomatically will be central to countering Soviet intervention:

*Major General Welch is now commander of Ninth Air Force (TAC) and thereby the commander of the air component of the RDJTF.

In keeping with General Welch’s criteria, the vulnerability of oil resources in Southwest Asia has been labeled a vital national interest by the Carter administration and confirmed in the same status by President Reagan.4 A strategy for securing such a vital interest, an RDF strategy, must encompass the principles of deterrence, force projection, and war fighting.

The United States has been in the business of deploying forces around the globe for many years.5 But such an endeavor in the 1980s has been complicated by the criticality of resource supplies and turbulence in the Third World. Also contributing to the problem are the nearly unbridled Soviet policies wrought by nuclear parity and unprecedented conventional force buildups, coupled to the geographical proximity advantage and new projection capability available to the Soviets.

Deterrence, force projection, and war fighting are the components of the strategy to defend U.S. vital interests in the Third World. Deterrence relates basically to the credibility or believability that a force could and would be used effectively. The visibility of a force is also a plus in deterrence: A force that can demonstrate presence has increased credibility.

The problems of force projection are responsiveness, logistics, and basing. Quick reaction could be vital to prevent interveners from gaining tactical or strategic advantage. Untimely U.S. response might cause a need for greater forces later on or result in escalation to general war.6 The Soviets are not going to give us notice of when and where they are going to move. Unfortunately, our intelligence and the willingness to react on our intelligence have cloudy records. Logistically, if the theater is Southwest Asia, then our line of communications (LOG) is about 8000 miles by air and 12,000 miles around the African continent. United States access to en route ports and bases has become more and more restricted.7 Logistical supply will be difficult and vital due to the high intensity of war in open country. And, as General Welch pointed out, the in-theater bases and infrastructure for supporting combat operations or even drinking water requirements are severely lacking.

War fighting is broken down into the ability to bring effective firepower to bear on the enemy, sustain that firepower, and maintain reasonable attrition rates.

Given these elements of the required strategy— deterrence, force projection, and war fighting— it falls to the planner to propose requisite forces. "Conventional forces" solutions to the strategy for projecting U.S. military force in the counterintervention role employ Army, Navy, Marine, and tactical air force (TAF) elements. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss these elements. However, by definition, the RDF is made up of forces from all the armed services; by design they complement and support one another. I will focus on generic long-range combat aircraft (LRCA) and how they should play a prominent role in the counterintervention mission of the RDF.

For an aircraft to qualify as an LRCA in the generic sense, it "must be able to fly long distances, to carry large, diversified weapons loads, to provide self-contained capability for target acquisition and weapons delivery, to defend itself reasonably well against sophisticated air defenses and, most importantly, to provide on-scene, human judgment throughout the mission."8 The B-52 is an LRCA, albeit 18 to 25 years old. Congress issued a mandate for definition of a new "multipurpose bomber" in August 1980 that may well be the next LRCA.9 The B-l, canceled by President Carter in 1977 but nevertheless funded for research and development every year since, is an LRCA design. President Reagan in 1981 specified the development of a B-l variant, the B-1B, and called for the first squadron to be operational in 1986. Congress is acting on the administration’s B-1B proposal at this printing.

Also, in 1980, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) developed and exercised a Strategic Projection Force (SPF) that would support the RDF with a package of intelligence, reconnaissance, command, control, and communications and, most important, a B-52H LRCA force for the RDF mission.10 In November 1981 six B52Hs flew 30-hour conventional bombing missions in support of the Bright Star 82 exercise in Egypt, taking off from and returning to their home bases in North Dakota. Each bomber released 27 conventional 500-pound bombs on the 15,000-mile nonstop, round trip flight and was supported by several inflight refuelings.11

"That two presidents—Jimmy Garter and Ronald Reagan—have reassigned some of the B-52s formerly reserved for. . . nuclear strikes to protecting Persian Gulf oil dramatizes how priorities have changed as the world scramble for resources heats up."12 Also, this reassignment shows a growing realization of how an LRCA force is uniquely suited to the counter-intervention role.

Deterrence, according to AFM 1-1, Functions and Basic Doctrine of the United States Air Force, "stems from the perception by other nations of our capability, intent, and will. Therefore, we can deter conflict only if a potential adversary perceives that, of all the conceivable options, armed conflict is unacceptable because of our military potential and our will to use it."13 Deterrence of Soviet actions in areas peripheral to the Soviet Union or elsewhere in the Third World is far different from strategic nuclear deterrence. Where the latter is served by equivalent nuclear forces, intervention is deterred by a combination of strategic nuclear, theater nuclear, and conventional forces.14 LRCA is unique because it serves across this entire spectrum. However, given current trends in nuclear symmetry, it is at the conventional level that LRCA can dramatically improve U.S. capability.

Neither political leverage or effective deterrence can be gained from military power that is too destructive to be suitable for a contingency that requires neatly limited application, or from military forces that are too far away to make a timely response.15

Deterrence is further served because the lethal payload of the LRCA and the presence of "a man in the loop [provides] the unique advantage of the [LRCA] over other systems. . . escalation control and keeping the nuclear threshold high."16 General Ellis, until 1981 the Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command, was quoted by the Washington Post to this effect:

The last thing we want to do . . . is to be the one who has to initiate nuclear weapons to salvage a force. With airpower you don’t set yourself on a beachhead immediately and get yourself in a position where you may have to use nuclear weapons. . . sending [LRCA] rather than troops to the Gulf would widen the firebreak between conventional and nuclear war.17

An LRCA is highly visible and mobile; it is an established symbol of national resolve. Due to its long range and flexibility, even continental United States (CONUS) basing allows employment of the LRCA anywhere in the world.18 General Ellis said: ". . . sending [LRCA] to the trouble spot in the first hours of a crisis might be enough to freeze the Soviet military. Bombs might not have to be dropped at all, as long as will and ability to do so were demonstrated. . . ." 19

The LRCA particularly contributes to the "intent" factor of deterrence. It is a saber that is feasibly rattled, the prime example of this was our response to the Cuban missile crisis.20 The deployment of LRCA to forward bases or merely the placing on alert of CONUS-based LRCA with conventional weapons would be highly visible and therefore credible ways of saying clearly that there are significant risks and penalties incumbent to an intervention by the Soviets and that the United States is prepared to respond with appropriate levels of force. General Ellis has described this feature of alert posturing and deployment as giving "decision-makers an option to apply force in the signal giving mode." It lets the Soviets know that they are "getting into one of our vital interests "21

Force Projection. The three legs of force projection are responsiveness, logistics supportability, and basing. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) listed two considerations relative to force projection:

. . . US airlift and sealift capabilities are insufficient for the rapid deployment of large forces to remote areas. This is a critical deficiency, for meeting and deterring threats require an ability to embrace forces before a crisis escalates into conflict. . . . US access to a number of regions around the world has become increasingly uncertain. A diminished overseas basing structure, fewer overflight and staging rights, and reduced opportunities for pre-positioning war materials make the deployment and support of combat forces at great distances more difficult than it was.22

The long range of the LRCA contributes to all three legs of force projection and concurrently assuages the JCS considerations discussed earlier. Because it can go to combat from CONUS bases or deploy to support bases well away from the theater, the LRCA can be responsive, supportable, and based with ease.

Regional basing arrangements for strategic bomber forces are ongoing. At the present time, bombs and fuel for possible contingency operations are stockpiled in Europe and Guam.23 An agreement with the Australian government has made the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Darwin available for B-52 staging.24

General Ellis summed up advantages of LRCA for force projection in a discussion of the B-52:

[Its] long unrefueled range. . . allows the B-52 to effectively operate farther from the hostile fighter threat area. Because it can be based outside of the immediate battle area, it will not compete for limited airfield and basing facilities with shorter-range aircraft or other US and allied forces. In addition the B-52 will not tax already heavily committed . . . air refueling resources.25

War Fighting. The components of war fighting are effective firepower, sustainability, and the maintenance of reasonable attrition rates (combat survivability). The firepower of an LRCA is enormous. In Southeast Asia, the B52D routinely dropped bomb loads of 108 general-purpose bombs and had a maximum payload capability of 60,000 pounds. The LRCA proposed by President Reagan as the near-term multipurpose bomber (B-1B) could carry 84 bombs internally. The maximum payload could be more than 100,000 pounds.26 "No other [current] weapon system can match the B-52 in delivering concentrated conventional firepower. In the opening hours of hostilities, B-52s can quickly and effectively assist in disrupting enemy actions."27 An LRCA force might be the only force the United States can project in the opening hours of an invasion "to blunt the massive armored spearhead attack, which is a key element of Soviet theater war-fighting doctrine."28 Two LRCA forces could be employed, one from CONUS basing for opening strikes, while another is deploying to regional prepositioned material bases that are peripheral to the intervention theater. Southeast Asia proved the LRCA (B-52) capable of sustained, round-the-clock attack.

Concerning attrition, the LRCA can expect a difficult but negotiable threat environment. Though Soviet ground mobile antiair systems and defensive aircraft are formidable, the combat arena should not resemble the more heavily defended areas of the Soviet Union. The LRCA, by definition, is night and all-weather capable. These are envelopes to be exploited because of attendant reduction in enemy defense capability and the need to deprive the enemy of sanctuary in these conditions. When tactical air force (TAF) elements join the theater, their predominantly visual capability will blend well with LRCA night capabilities.29 Also, the TAF, using the defense suppression capabilities developed since the Israeli 1973 experience along the Suez, can further enable the LRCA attack.

SAC considers the B-52 viable in the counter-intervention role:

The defense system of the B-52H and its ability to move into a hostile environment at an altitude of less than 500 feet are expected to effectively protect the bombers from air defenses known to exist in the Middle East and Southwest Asia regions.30

Further, vulnerability is reduced by the 2500-mile plus unrefueled combat radius of the B-52H or future LRCA which allows for secure basing well away from enemy offensive counterair.31

Summarizing the war-fighting aspect, the aim of an LRCA projection force is to be able to put debilitating firepower on the field forces and supporting elements of an intervening power "with lightning speed, perhaps as a precursor to the operations of the Rapid Deployment Force" and later in support of RDF ground elements.32

Since the l960s, when U.S. strategy changed from massive retaliation to flexible response, military forces have been faced with a mismatch between the strategy consonant to national security policy and available forces. This asymmetry has been exacerbated by false economies, post-Vietnam retrenchments, and the severe requirements endemic to Southwest Asia. The credible strategy required by the United States, due to weight of world position and vital interests, must be supported by substantial improvements and sustained procurement.33 While the Strategic Projection Force is ready to go today, force modernization is important to stay relevant to the threat. The new LRCA (B-1B) projected for the 1986-87 time frame should be procured.

In addition to airframe procurement, the development and application of enhanced-lethality munitions are of primary importance for employment of LRCA in support of RDF. Lethality combines destructiveness with accuracy and is the ultimate arbiter of weapon-system effectiveness. The LRCA assigned to the RDF today are armed with general-purpose bombs that have evolved only slightly since World War II. The accuracy and destructiveness of general-purpose bombs on a B-52H do not meet the requisite lethality criteria, particularly when cost-exchange and cost-to-deliver ratios are factored.

Rather than the past practice of delivering massive munitions loads from many LRCAs on a few targets, the LRCA of the near-future should dispense many lethal weapons on many targets with requisite accuracy.

The concepts of standoff delivery systems and common dispensers of terminally guided submunitions, with both high-altitude/high-speed vertical attack systems and slower-speed/low-altitude, medium-to-long-range cruise missile systems, have great potential and should be exploited.

It is critical that enhanced-lethality munitions especially for airfield denial, the destruction of massed armor, and the neutralization of point targets like command posts, bridges, and bunkers be developed and established in the tactical doctrine of LRCA that support the RDF.

Beyond the 1980s, a prognosis of the threat, the availability of stealth and other technologies, and the age of the B-52 force will demand further LRCA force procurement. An advanced technology bomber (ATB) should be forecast for LRCA roles in the l990s.

A strong case can be made for the development of a nonnuclear LRCA in the 1990s. Since World War II, we have built bomber aircraft optimized for the strategic nuclear bomber role: The B-47, B-52, B-58, B-70, and B-1 are examples of this design. Yet in Korea and Vietnam strategic bomber aircraft were used in the conventional role. Current wisdom says that in this era and the foreseeable future nonnuclear firepower will remain the type most likely used.34 The Soviet Union’s growing conventional power-projection capabilities and the emerging military strength of Third World nations are strong indicators that conflicts are likely to remain beneath the nuclear threshold.

There are four main problems with the employment of strategic nuclear aircraft in the conventional role. First, they are not optimized for the conventional role. This has led in the past to inefficiency and untimely modification.

Second, there are political difficulties with staging, basing, and employment of aircraft identified as nuclear capable because of the stigma surrounding their nuclear association.

Third, diversion of such aircraft detracts from the single integrated operational plan (SIOP), the U.S. strategic nuclear strike plan. The SIOP is the primary operating sphere and contribution to deterrence of strategic nuclear aircraft.

The fourth problem is related to the third but brings the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) consideration into the equation. Since strategic nuclear delivery vehicles have been accountable in SALT totals, the fact that the United States and the Soviets have agreed to the basic principle of ". . . significant and substantial reductions in the numbers of strategic offensive arms. . . ." could raise a difficult dilemma.35 This dilemma would come about as SALT totals, including the number of LRCA, are reduced. In this situation, a diversion from the SIOP-dedicated force for application in conventional RDF support would become ever more critical and therefore more reluctantly pursued. Such a diminishment would endanger SIOP effectiveness; and because of their criticality to SIOP, the credibility of U.S. willingness to use LRCA in support of RDF would also be in peril.

These four problems have in the past constrained the use and effectiveness of LRCA in a conventional role. That these problems will hinder LRCA in support of RDF is axiomatic. Conversely, a nonnuclear LRCA would eliminate the four problems that accompany reliance on nuclear LRCA for RDF conventional support. Whether solely nonnuclear or dual capable, strategic prudence mandates continued development of LRCA that can fully support the RDF strategy.

The foremost strategy and employment problem in the U.S. defense establishment is the RDF. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger was quoted in U.S. News and World Report:

. . . we certainly may find ourselves in a situation in the years ahead where the Soviet Union is an energy-importing nation and where we must resist any aggressive move toward the gulf as quickly and as forcefully as we can. In order to do that effectively, America must have the ability to project force rapidly into that area and to sustain and reinforce it.36

The United States needs a credible force to deter (and, if necessary, counter) intervention by the Soviets or their surrogates. Vital interests of the United States have been declared to be endangered in Southwest Asia; and though undeclared, vital interests are no less endangered in Africa.

A variety of methods has been proposed by political, service, and weapon systems advocates, and all come up short against the requirements of the precarious theaters involved. Lieutenant General Kelly H. Burke, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, Research, Development and Acquisition, summed up the case for long-range combat aircraft:

. . . in a time when our interests are increasingly intertwined with the rest of the world . . . LRCA would provide the quickest and, in some cases, the only means to mount a rapid show of force or, if required, to bring that force to bear against any target—anywhere—within 24 hours and return to fight again.37



1. Harold Brown, Department of Defense Annual Report Fiscal Year 1982 (Washington: GPO, January 1981), p. 19.

2. Ibid., p. 81.

3. Major General Larry D. Welch, Deputy Chief of Staff/Operations, Tactical Air Command, Langley AFB, Virginia, interview, 22 January 1981.

4. George C. Wilson, "Anytime Anywhere: A New Conventional Role for B-52 Bombers," Washington Post, March 31, 1981, p. 16.

5. Harold Brown, "What Are U.S. Interests?" Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, May 1980, pp. 2-10.

6. Captain Donald J. Hall, "A Strategic Force for Use in Less Than General War Situations," Research Report, Air Command and Staff College, 1965, p. 13.

7. Lieutenant General Kelly H. Burke, "The Strategic Triad in the ‘80s," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, April 1980, p. 28.

8. Ibid.

9. Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., "Multipurpose Bomber Advances,’’ Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 4, 1980, p. 16.

10. General Richard H. Ellis," Elements of SAC Preparedness," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, December 1980, p. 12.

11. "B-52s Bomb Egyptian Desert," Air Force Times, December 7, 1981, p. 38.

12. Wilson, p. 16.

13. Air Force Manual 1-1, Functions and Basic Doctrine of the United States Air Force (Washington: GPO, 1981 ), p. 1-7

14. Ibid.

15. Lloyd Norman, ‘‘US Defense Priorities,’’ AEI Foreign Policy and Defense Review, vol. 1, no. 3, 1979, p. 21.

16. General Richard H. Ellis, "SAC Looks at the ‘80s," Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, February 1980, p. 25.

17. Wilson, p. 6.

18. Ellis, "SAC Looks at the ‘80s," p. 25.

19. Wilson, p. 16. 20. Elie Abel, The Missile Crisis (Philadelphia, 1966), p. 97; Jeremy J. Stone, "The Strategic Role of United States Bombers," in The Use of Force, International Politics and Foreign Policy, Robert J Art and Kenneth Walt, editors (Boston, 1971), p. 344.

21. Wilson, p. 16.

22. The Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Military Posture for FY 1982 (Washington: GPO, 1981), p. 43.

23. Howard Silber, "B-52s Able to Speed to Mideast Hot Spots," Omaha World-Herald, January 25, 1981, p. 1.

24. Ellis, "SAC Looks at the ‘80s," p. 60.

25. Ellis, "Elements of SAC Preparedness," p. 12.

26. "Expedited Effort Expected for Bomber," Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 23, 1981, p. 21.

27. Ellis, "Elements of SAC Preparedness," p. 12.

28. Burke, p. 27.

29. Silber, p. 1.

30. Ibid.

31. Wilson, p. 16.

32. Ellis, "Elements of SAC Preparedness," pp. 8-14.

33. General David C. Jones, "An Overview . . ." of the United States Military Posture for FY 1982 (Washington: GPO, 1981), pp. vi-vii.

34. Harold Brown, Department of Defense Annual Report Fiscal Year 1981 (Washington: GPO, January l980) p. 97.

35. U.S. Department of State, SALT II Agreement, Selected Documents No. l2B, 1979, p. 58.

36. "What’s Being Done about Waste in the Pentagon," U.S. News and World Report, April 13, 1981, p. 46.

37. Burke, p. 28.


Lieutenant Colonel William R. Ligge1t ( B.S., Miami University, Ohio; M.A., State University of New York) is assigned to the Directorate of Plans, DCS Operation, Plans and Readiness, Hq USAF. He previously served as an instructor pilot in squadron and wing staff operations in the B-52 and FB-111, including Southeast Asia combat in the B-52. Colonel Liggett published an FB-111 pilot report in Air Force. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Air War College and a graduate of Squadron Officer School and 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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