Last year’s announcement from General Norton Schwarz, then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force, that the service would cull part of its savings by waiting to certify the Long-Range Strike bomber’s nuclear capability raised eyebrows. Schwartz volunteered the cut in the Q&A portion of a congressional hearing, very early in the build-down process, despite the program enjoying first order priority, and without quantifying the savings commitment.
The Air Force could have walked away from this idea relatively easily. Schwartz has since retired, and the House Armed Services Committee has advanced legislation prohibiting the cut (see §211). But it hasn’t. To the contrary, the Air Force has opened an even wider window into its thinking on the matter.
Last Tuesday Lt. Gen. Kowalski, chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, told Popular Mechanics that:
After the airplane comes off the line and we have it conventionally certified with those weapons, then we’ll transition to the nuke certification. We have never certified an airplane and both weapon types at the same time because it’s very different testing and it would drive a whole lot of expense. Frankly, trying to do them simultaneously would slow those tests down. There is a lot of debate about, well, is it nuclear first or is it conventional first? It’s going to be both. It’s just, what’s the priority?
A pointed question indeed. It appears to be a rhetorical one, hinting that conventional capability is the Air Force’s priority. That was clear from the atmospherics before the program commenced, but Kowalski seems to have offered the first public admission that this position hasn’t changed.
As remarkable as that is on its face, it carries an even larger suggestion: the Air Force may be willing to compromise this bomber’s nuclear mission altogether if the cost trade-offs become strict enough. It’s worth watching whether this will be one of the ways that the Pentagon demonstrates how “our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.”