Defense Secretary meets with crew of the ‘Spirit of Nebraska’ B-2 Bomber. Air Force photo.
(AP) – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday vigorously endorsed an Air Force plan to build a next-generation strategic bomber, arguing that it would help deter nuclear war and preserve America’s global pre-eminence.
“I think the long-range strike bomber is absolutely essential to keep our deterrent edge as we go into the next 25 years,” Hagel told reporters after addressing a group of several hundred airmen at this B-2 stealth bomber base in western Missouri.
He called the future bomber, estimated to cost $55 billion to $80 billion for as many as 100 planes, “a critical element” of U.S. global power.
The price tag is an issue, however, not least because the Pentagon says it also needs to modernize the two other elements of the strategic nuclear force: the Navy’s fleet of Ohio-class strategic submarines and the Air Force’s Minuteman 3 land-based nuclear missiles. The combined cost would exceed $300 billion, by current estimates.
Hagel noted that the 20 planes in the B-2 fleet – all based at Whiteman – are operating on 25-year-old technology. The other nuclear-capable plane in the bomber fleet, the venerable B-52, is even older.
Hagel flew to Whiteman to begin a farewell tour of U.S. military bases. He later traveled to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, and also planned to visit Navy sailors aboard an aircraft carrier and Army soldiers in Texas this week.
Hagel’s designated successor, Ashton Carter, is expected to win Senate confirmation in early February. Until then, Hagel will remain in office.