Bombers on a bombing mission tend to be intercepted by fighters, and cannot really defend themselves all that well. Thus they get escort fighters. Fighter escort schemes got quite intricate back in 1944 already, and it was known as early as 1940 that the escort fighters scored best when flying offensive combat air patrols at some distance to the bombers (instead of in formation with them).
Bombers also face air defences, and as early as 1943 night bombers received support by radar (and radio) jamming aircraft (also using bomber airframes).
Tanker aircraft began supporting strike missions sometime in the 1960's, helping particularly fighters for a greater mission radius and for more fuel to expend during air combat (afterburners are extremely thirsty!). They also helped fighter-bombers greatly; for more range or for more bombs or for a bit of both.
Also during the 1960's "wild weasel" aircraft appeared; aircraft with not only radar warning receivers, but sophisticated passive radars to find air defence radars, and anti-radiation missiles to silence them (usually followed up by a more conventional attack with bombs).
Aircraft with large air search and track radars support the strike especially since the 1980's, sensing hostile aircraft at 300+ km distance, relaying the data by datalink to the other aircraft and trying to reduce the chaos (and thus "friendly fire") by maintaining an overall situation picture of identified friendlies and threats.
Finally, reconnaissance aircraft followed the strike to bring back aerial photography of the target, for bomb damage assessment.
Since the 1990's it's also possible to add radar aircraft that can map targets on the ground, which is potentially useful for supporting the wild weasels.
Since the 2000's independently flying decoys (example ADM-160 MALD) have become vastly more easily employable than their predecessors from the 1970's; they can be stored as munitions under the pylons of fighter-bombers.
The combination of multiple such elements in a synchronised strike operation constitutes a "strike package", and it's been the zenith of Western (U.S.) air power art since the late 1960's. The success of strike packages in accomplishing their missions in face of (usually old) air defences was the foundation for Western belief in its offensive air power superiority.
|taken from here, a website explaining strike packages to warsim gamers|
I mentioned a while ago that the outright cheap alternative is to simply use precision guided quasi-ballistic missiles such as Iskander, but there's an even bigger problem with strike packages:
Strike packages maybe do not work against peer air forces at all.
First, long-range air-to-air missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles are a huge threat to aircraft such as the typical large radar aircraft (example E-3 Sentry and E-8 J-STARS) which are no faster, no more nimble than airliners since their airframe are essentially airliner airframes. It's even worse with naval AEW aircraft such as the turboprop-driven E-2 Hawkeye and the budget solution Saab 340 AEW&C. The Russians strived to possess effective long range anti-aircraft missiles, and appear to have succeeded (S-400's 40N6 / SA-12, R-33 / AA-9, R-37 / AA-13 and possibly KS-172 /K-100). It's thus reasonable to draw scenarios in which AEW and C4ISR aircraft as well as tankers would be pushed back by much, possibly 400 km from opposing forces-dominated terrain. This fits poorly with their up to 300 km radar range, and greatly reduces the advantage gained from aerial refuelling.
An inability to support a strike package over hostile territory with an AEW system badly reduces the combat air patrol's efficiency and survivability. Fighters still tend to "see" little outside of a frontal approx. 110° cone. This used to be slightly better with 1980's and 1990's radars, but fixed, non-rotating AESA antennas have merely about 100-110° field of view. The fighters would thus need to support each other to avoid surprise contacts, which forces them into suboptimal formations.
The long range of air-to-air missiles (now the kind that's capable of taking down fighters; 100+ km range) also requires to sanitise almost an entire theatre of war from hostile interceptors, or else they might effectively still engage the bomb-carrying aircraft. So essentially offensive combat air patrols would be in very, very difficult tactical situations.
It's similarly bad with wild weasels: Even the public learned that Western anti-radar missiles can be countered well enough even by obsolete air defences (Yugoslavia 1999) to ensure that wild weasels can only do SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) well, not DEAD (destruction ...). The wild weasel's work is only done once the defenders have expended all their surface-to-air missiles or when the air war ends (more likely the latter). Against a peer air force you cannot really destroy the hostile air defences and then commence with the turkey shoot as against the incompetent Iraqi military in 1991.
Well, as mentioned, the fighters need to cover a huge area; theoretically the wild weasels would need to do so as well, which is usually impractical. The fighters would thus be forced to survive on their own or stay close to the bomb-carrying aircraft.
And then there are the jamming aircraft. They were based on bomber airframes well into the 1960's, but the modern approach appears to base them on two-seat fighter airframes (example EA-18G Growler), joined with the Wild Weasel role. The problem with jamming is that it's very treacherous. The opposing air defences could even launch a missile with a passive radar seeker and only when this missile is close to the triangulated jammer it would receive the command to activate a more common sensor for engaging an aircraft, such as active radar or imaging infrared. The survivability of jamming aircraft is thus very questionable. Curiously, all those people who love "stealth" so much rarely seem to hate the flying beacons called RF jammer aircraft as much.
Let's compare; a sophisticated strike package consists of
+ bomb-carrying aircraft
+ fighters on offensive combat air patrol
+ AEW&C aircraft
+ SEAD (&ECM) aircraft
+ tanker aircraft
+ possibly C4ISR aircraft
+ possibly photo reconnaissance aircraft
A peer air force such as the Russian one could potentially defeat through technical and tactical means
- AEW&C aircraft
- SEAD(&ECM) aircraft
- tanker aircraft
- C4ISR aircraft
which would greatly endanger the
- bomb-carrying aircraft
- fighters on offensive combat air patrol
- photo reconnaissance aircraft
because of persistent area air defence and interceptor threats.
The United States Air Force and the even more affected United States Navy appear to have understood this, hence their interest in stealth aircraft which - if not defeated by technical or tactical means - may offer a practical alternative to a sophisticated strike package even against a peer air force. The big problem here is in radio physics; long wavelength radars can detect all but impractically large stealth aircraft, and normal fire control radars can pick them up once they know where to search. Finally, there was never much hope to hide aircraft from infrared sensors (though said sensors can be countered by several means as well), and their effective range has been multiplied since the end of the Cold War.
Air power is very technology-dependent and at the same time still driven by tactics. Both usually only come to light once there's a war or secrecy becomes impractical for other reasons.
Yet there are god reasons to expect that the technological advances of in particular Russia have defeated the classic strike package, and Russia may as well have defeated "stealth" (which by no is already really old). The opponent always has a say in warfare due to warfare's adversial nature, and it's not only "us" who have secret surprises in storage.
In the end, I personally are very much reserved in regard to deep air strikes against peer opponents. More likely than not only the most valuable targets would justify the expenses of such strikes, unlike the experiences from the 1960's till today against Third World countries and Yugoslavia's (small, largely obsolete and poorly maintained) air force.
A practical deep strike first month target list for a conflict in Eastern Europe would likely include less than a hundred targets; interdiction against marching ground force or supply vehicles at substantial depths (100+ km in front of friendly-dominated terrain) would likely not be worth the attrition. Bridges could be destroyed with guided quasiballistic missiles, but replacing bridges for road traffic would be easy at all but the widest rivers (not quite as easy for rail lines).
There's good reason to be sceptical about offensive air power; Western air power experienced too many easy and thus deceiving "victories" against Third World countries.
2008-11 Next decade: Supersonic business jets
2009-06 Air war support & Europe