2009/01/31

Heavy bombers - scarier than ever before

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I made a small calculation during the South Ossetia War that I want to share:

It was about the effect that a heavy bomber could have in a scenario like the South Ossetia War with smart bombs.

Keep in mind that GPS and INS-guided bombs can be used with extreme accuracy against coordinates. They're not good against moving targets, but good at impacting at certain coordinates - and they're not significantly larger than unguided bombs.

A B-2 (the bomber that could realistically do a single sortie without support and have an impact) can carry 80x Mk-82 500 lbs bombs (about 227 kg). Replace the Mk-82 bombs by GBU-30/ GBU-38 guided bombs for this scenario.

Such a general purpose blast+fragmentation bomb has easily a lethal radius of about 40 m against soft and thinly armored targets (plus or minus a few meters isn't really relevant, you'll see that later).
A single bomb can ruin vehicles on about 80 m road length. The point of impact would be set a bit to the side of the road for greatest effect if road traffic is dense/jammed (this reduces the road length covered) or directly on the road if normal military march spacing is expected (this adds a bit road damage). Fuzes wold be set to super quick.

80 bombs with about 80 m road length covered each - that's 6,400 m. A single bomber could have ruined the day. A flight of about half a dozen bombers would have covered the entire main (and only relevant) road in South Ossetia's valley and ruined a motorized rifle division.

I made a similar thought experiment in 1999 during the Kosovo Air War. A single B-.2 strike could have wiped off most of the Yugoslavian electricity production by simply destroying the turbine rooms of the few power plants (less the nuclear one, that would have been too unsafe). The bomb bay wouldn't even have been half-filled for such a mission. Count your countries' power plants - how many bomber sorties would it take to wipe out 80% of its electricity production today? One? Two? I doubt that it would take more than three for any country, even not for Russia or China.

Precision-guided bomb carpets could also be real 'carpets', not 'lines' as in the past, even with a single bomber. A heavy bomber (or few heavy fighter-bombers like F-15E, Su-34 or Tornado IDS) could cover a whole small forest where an enemy infantry company hides.

That reminds me of an air attack in September 1939 when a Stuka wing surprised a bunched-up Polish division at a large railway station and effectively destroyed the division as a fighting force in few minutes.


I have often read that heavy bombers are dinosaurs of the Cold War. Such remarks were common till they were used to drop single guided bombs on Taliban groups in Afghanistan, thousands of kilometers away from their British Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.
Single guided bomb drops are probably not their most important capability today; the sheer quantity in the bomb bay is a quality of its own.

Luckily, it's possible to substitute with fighter-bombers because it's really only about "guided bomb + quantity". There's no need to introduce heavy bombers into air forces that haven't got any today.

So-called "strategic" air power IS extremely powerful, and I can understand the attitude of air force officers in many cases; the potential was just not really unleashed since 1945. It wasn't the tool of choice in our past few conflicts.

Sven Ortmann

edit: 20090-03-20:
This video seems to fit fine:

3 comments:

  1. Still, the B-52s did over 125,000 sorties over Vietnam where they dropped over two million tonnes of bombs. Today, B-52s can only be safely used when the US has total control of the Air and when the bombed country has no defences (Afghanistan, etc) Over dozen were lost to enemy action in Vietnam. When used against real enemies, as when the US would use B-1s or B-52s against Russia or when Russia would use Tu-160s or Tu-95s against the US, these aircraft are armed with nuclear cruise missiles and penetrate enemy airspace at very low altitude. The cruise missiles are released far from the target, which allows the bomber to make his escape. Smart bombs are gravity bombs that require the Bomber to overfly the target at altitude. Against a real enemy, that would be a suicidal flight for B-52s.

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  2. A B-2 (the bomber that could realistically do a single sortie without support and have an impact)..."
    :-)

    There are more methods than you listed, by the way.
    We have many glide bombs that glide a considerable distance (good enough to stay away from most battlefield air defences).

    A method is level toss, a throwing technique that gives additional range to bombs (probably not possible with bomb bays).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toss_bombing

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  3. Well yes, you noticed that I avoided mentionning the B-2 which is in a class of its own. Much grey area there so I will not speculate one way or the other.

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