US Military's 20 Most Dangerous Weapons

The National Interest compiled research examining the best of the best US Military weapons systems across the services.

----This Story Was Written by The National Interest----

TNI Staff [2]

The U.S. military is clearly the most sophisticated, most advanced and most powerful on the planet for a very simple reason--having the best weapons. 

Spread over the Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force, as well as in other areas such a cyber, space, and nuclear forces, Washington's armed forces are ready for almost any problem in almost any part of the globe.

But what are the very best weapon systems America has? Specifically, looking at many of the different service branches, what are the best of the best? 

Over the last few years we have compiled several different articles looking at this question, and for your reading pleasure, we have gathered them all into this one post. The first section, authored by Kyle Mizokami, looks at the U.S. Navy. In a second section, TNI Defense Editor Dave Majumdar takes an in-depth look at the U.S. Marines. Michael Peck offers his thoughts next in a section looking at the U.S. Army. And finally, Dave Majumdar rounds out the post by looking at the U.S. Air Force. 

Let the debate begin...

***

The United States Navy is the largest and most advanced navy in the world, fielding everything from aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft to submarines, destroyers and unmanned helicopters.

----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----

So when your editor asks you to choose the Navy’s five most lethal weapons systems, your most difficult challenge is trying to narrow it down to just five selections. For this article I bypassed the larger platforms such as the aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. To be sure, those are actually the most lethal weapons in the Navy’s arsenal, however, everybody knows them, and, as big platforms, they are actually the sum of many smaller ones.

Instead, I wanted to highlight platforms that were outstanding in some particular way, with an emphasis on the biggest bang for the buck. I also wanted to spread out the selection; it’s easy to merely include surface ships and submarines, ignoring aircraft and certain missions.

Before proceeding, it’s worth noting that the Navy is currently on the cusp of a technological revolution, with new ships, fighters, radars, lasers, railguns and unmanned systems on the horizon. In ten years, a repeat of this list may look very different.

Arleigh Burke-class Guided Missile Destroyer:

Named after the legendary World War II admiral, the Arleigh Burke class destroyers are some of the most balanced, capable ships fielded by any modern navy. The Burke class is the backbone of the fleet, with some 62 vessels [3] comprising over a fifth of all the ships [4] in the Navy.

The heart of the Burke’s combat systems is in its Aegis radar system, which is capable of directing a variety of air defense missiles against incoming targets. Aegis can coordinate the defense of an entire naval surface group, and with the new Cooperative Engagement Capability [5] the Burkes can fire on targets at extended ranges using targeting data from platforms [6] such as the E-2D Hawkeye.

The Burke class is also capable of launching Evolved Sea Sparrow air defense missiles against short and medium range targets, and SM-2 and SM-6 missiles  [7]against long-range aerial targets. Many destroyers also have a ballistic missile defense capability, and can launch SM-3 missiles [8] specialized for engagement of ballistic missiles.

For anti-submarine warfare, the class has a built-in SQQ-89 sonar system, with a towed sonar system scheduled for future upgrades. The ship mounts six Mk.46 anti-submarine torpedoes. The ship’s embarked MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters provide long-range anti-submarine capability, although only later versions of the Burke class were built with hangars.

For a modern ship, the Burke class is heavily armed with conventional guns. A 5-inch, 127-millimeter gun is mounted on the bow, capable of anti-ship, shore bombardment, and even a limited anti-air role. Two 25 mm guns and four .50 caliber machine guns were added after the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 1999. Finally, each ship has two Phalanx 1B close-in weapon systems designed to shoot down incoming missiles, but capable of firing on helicopters, UAVs, and small boats as well.

One area where the Burke class comes up short is in its ability to engage enemy ships. The ships are anemic in their anti-ship capability, with only older vessels even fielding 8 aging Harpoon anti-ship missiles. This has been by design, as no credible surface threat has existed and the Navy has concentrated on the Global War on Terror mission. Missiles such as the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile [9] and the Lockheed Martin Long Range Anti-Ship Missile [10] are in development and hold great promise as a future anti-ship missiles of the fleet.

The ships will likely be the longest class in production ever fielded by the U.S. Navy; Arleigh Burke herself was commissioned in 1991, and production is expected to continue for another fifteen years. That would mean nearly 40 years of near-continuous production for a single type of destroyer.

EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft:

Based on the successful F/A-18F Super Hornet, the EA-18 Growler is an electronic warfare aircraft with the performance of a fighter. Unlike its predecessor the EA-6B Prowler, the Growler is capable of being used more aggressively, pacing high performance fighter bombers on dangerous missions.

The Growler is basically a two seat Super Hornet, with 90 percent commonality in some features between the two planes. The Super Hornet’s internal M61 gun is deleted to accommodate an AN/ALQ-227 communications jamming system, and AN/ALQ-99 radar jamming pods are fitted to the plane’s weapons stations.

Growler has three key capabilities. Firstly, it can conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defense missions in support of drones or UAVs. Growler can jam communications and enemy radars on the ground and actively attack radars with anti-radar HARM missiles.

Second, Growler can conduct stand-off and escort jamming, against air defenses on the ground, enemy airborne early warning platforms and enemy fighters. Growler can keep up with fighters conducting a counter-air sweep and keep enemy radars and communications scrambled. Third, Growler is also capable of what is called “Non-Traditional Electronic Attack,” a somewhat mysterious capability which supposedly allows it to “integrate with ground defenses.”

In addition to those capabilities, Growler can also self-protect, allowing fighters that would otherwise escort it to be used elsewhere. Growler is as fast and maneuverable as a F/A-18F, and can carry AMRAAM air to air missiles for defensive use. Despite its electronic warfare designation, it is still is equipped with an APG-79 multi-mode AESA radar and a Helmet-Mounted Cueing System for air to air combat.

One hundred Growlers have been delivered [11] as of May 2014, and another 15 aircraft have been approved [12] as part of the 2015 Congressional defense budget.

Virginia-class Attack Submarine:

One of the most successful weapons programs of the post-Cold War period, the Virginia class attack submarine combines one of the most advanced nuclear attack submarines with an affordable shipbuilding program. At least 33 units are planned.

Each Virginia class is 377 feet long and 34 feet in diameter and weighs 7,800 tons submerged. Each has 12 vertical launch tubes for Tomahawk missiles., as well as four 533mm torpedo tubes capable of launching Mk 48 ADCAP homing torpedoes, mines, and torpedo tube-launched unmanned underwater vehicles [13]. Subs of the class are also equipped with lockout chambers for divers and can carry SEAL mini submarines.

In addition to their attack mission, Virginia submarines are also useful surveillance platforms. Each has an extensive sonar suite with bulb, sail and chin sonars covering the front hemisphere, sonar arrays on the flanks, and a towed array to detect objects in the sub’s wake. The ship is equipped with Electronic Support Measures sensors for detection of enemy signals and optronic sensors. These sensors can be augmented with data from UUVs and special forces. Intelligence can then be relayed to the surface and beyond via high-rate data transmitters.

The Virginia class is also a success from a cos [14]t perspective. The Seawolf-class that preceded it was a financial disaster—29 submarines were planned but the first three ships averaged $4.4 billion each and plans for further submarines were terminated.

The Virginias, on the other hand, have come in at an average of just under $2 billion each. Even better, by 2011 they were being delivered early and under budget. USS Mississippi was commissioned a year early [14] and $60 million under budget. In May, the U.S. Navy ordered ten submarines from General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls for $17.6 billion, making the per-unit cost a bargain at $1.76 billion. Under the agreement each shipyard would churn out a submarine a year for five years, ensuring that two submarines would join the fleet annually.

Ohio-Class Cruise Missile Submarine:

The four guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) of the Ohio-class: Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Georgia — are four of the most heavily armed ships in the world. Each is equipped with 154 cruise missiles and can carry up to four platoons of Navy SEALs.

Originally constructed as ballistic missile submarines, each submarine carried 24 nuclear tipped D-5 Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Under the terms of the START II treaty the United States was left with four excess ballistic missile submarine hulls. Rather than decommission them, the U.S. Navy paid $4 billion to convert them to carry conventionally-armed Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles.

Twenty two of the Trident missile silos were converted to each hold seven Tomahawk missiles. The result is a stealthy cruise missile platform capable of firing 154 Tomahawk missiles, a unique capability that greatly increases the US Navy’s firepower.

The precise loadout of each submarine is classified but includes some mixture of Block III Tomahawk and Block IV Tomahawk missiles.  Tomahawk Block III/C has a single 1,000 lb conventional warhead and a range of 1,000 miles. Block III/D has a payload of 166 cluster bomblets and a range of 800 miles. Each missile features multiple navigation methods and can guide itself to target by Inertial Navigation System, Terrain Contour Matching, Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator [15] and GPS.

Tomahawk Block IV/E adds the capability for each missile to conduct reconnaissance, bomb damage assessment and retargeting. The missile can send back an image of the battle area in order, loiter while new target data is drawn up, and then substitute a new target for the old one. The missile is also significantly cheaper than previous Tomahawks.

The remaining two Trident launchers were converted for use by Navy SEALs, and feature lockout chambers for exiting the submarine underwater. The Ohio-class SSGNs can each carry 66 SEAL commandos [16] as well as embark a combination of two midget submarines or Dry Dock Shelters.

The Ohio submarines fired their first missiles in anger on March 19th, 2011 during Operation Odyssey Dawn. USS Florida fired 93 Tomahawks against Libyan military targets. In the future, the cruise missile submarines could be used as mother-ships for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs.)

USS Ponce:

It may seem strange for an aging amphibious transport dock to be on this list, and indeed a week ago it would not have made the cut The 43-year-old USS Ponce, launched in July 1971, served for years as a transport for U.S. Marines. Now it’s an Afloat Forward Staging Base, and the first ship in the US Navy operationally armed with a laser weapon.

Wednesday, the U.S. Navy revealed that the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS is now an operational weapons system. The laser system is cleared to be fired in combat.

The laser system is designed to target unmanned aerial vehicles, slow moving helicopters, and fast patrol craft. In a video released by the Navy [17] on YouTube, the laser detonates a RPG-7 anti-tank rocket, burned out the engine of a small boat, and shot down a small unmanned aerial vehicle. The process appears to take a fraction of a second.

The U.S. Navy claims that, per the Geneva Convention the laser will not be used to target individual humans. It’s safe to say, however, that detonating explosive devices, fuel, or causing catastrophic damage to a vehicle could have lethal consequences for the crew.

No details exist on the range of the LaWS, or how many shots it can fire in an engagement. The laser light does not appear visible to the naked eye. The system appears to be aimed by a shipboard operator using a modified video game controller.

In a world of high cost weapons systems, one of the most remarkable things about LaWS is the cost. LaWS costs only 69 cents per shot, with apparently only one shot needed to disable a small boat. The Griffin missile, which the U.S. Navy had also considered using against small boats, costs $99,000 each [18]. RAM, the point defense system that might otherwise engage UAVs, costs well over $250,000 per missile. LaWS even compares favorably with the 20mm cannon round fired by the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System. While we don’t know how much the entire LaWS system actually costs, these per shot numbers are encouraging.

LaWS is a 30 kilowatt laser system. The U.S. Navy plans to test more powerful 100 to 150 kilowatt systems within the next two years.

***

The U.S. Marine Corps prides itself on being America’s 911 force—a fire brigade that the president can call upon to fight the nation’s battles in an emergency. Though the Marines have largely been treated as a de facto second land army over the past dozen years, the service is an integral component of the Department of the Navy and is primarily a maritime force. Therefore, the Marines—as a specialized amphibious force—argue that they need unique hardware to conduct their unique missions. While the service has many different types of weapons, here is a selection of their five key systems:

Marine Rifleman:

While not a “weapon system” in the traditional sense of the word, the Marine Corps warrior ethos and superb training make the service what it is. Every single Marine, from the lowest private to the Commandant himself is trained first and foremost as an infantryman.

Even the Marines’ naval aviators undergo nine months of infantry training as part of Officer Candidate School and the Basic School before they go off to flight school. The shared experience of fighting alongside Marines on the ground gives the service a level of cohesion that the other branches lack. Ultimately, it is the Marine Corps’ people that make it arguably the most effective branch of the armed forces.

With the United States theoretically ending combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service will shrink to a total strength of 182,000 Marines by 2017. But even at that reduced manning level, it will be nearly as large as the entire active British military.

M1A1 Abrams:

While the Marine Corps prides itself on being a strategically mobile medium-weight force, there are times when it needs the brute force of heavy armor. That brute force is provided by the General Dynamics M1A1 Abrams [19].

While not quite as advanced as the U.S. Army’s M1A2 SEPv2, the Marines’ M1A1 Firepower Enhancement Package suits the Marine’s purposes of supporting the service’s infantry. The Abrams is armed with a 120mm cannon and is protected with an armor matrix that incorporates depleted-uranium armor. With a 1,500hp Honeywell gas-turbine engine, it can move at more than 45 miles per hour.

The Marines are not a heavy, mechanized force in the mold of the Army’s heavy brigade combat teams. The entire Marine force has only three tank battalions—and the service has just shy of 400 tanks in total, most of which are stored in pre-positioned stocks.

AH-1Z Viper:

The Bell AH-1Z Viper [20] is the latest iteration of the Vietnam-era Cobra attack helicopter. While outwardly the AH-1Z looks like its predecessors, it is basically a completely new machine.

The AH-1Z is powered by a pair of 1,800shp General Electric T700 turboshaft engines that is coupled with a new four-bladed composite rotor system that gives the helicopter exceptional agility. It carries a suite of advanced sensors including a Lockheed Martin target sight system and can carry the Longbow radar system. Like the Army’s AH-64E Apache, it can carry sixteen Hellfire missiles, but also adds an air-to-air punch with its ability to fire AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

The AH-1Z also shares many common parts with the Marines’ Bell UH-1Y Venom version of the UH-1 Huey, which helps with the services logistics. However, on the downside, the Viper and Venom are unique platforms with the Defense Department, and have not been built in huge numbers like the Army’s Apache or UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. That means the Marines have a more difficult time keeping their machines up-to-date with the latest advances—and it costs more.

Boeing AV-8B Harrier II:

The AV-8B Harrier [21] jump-jet affords the Marines’ expeditionary units their own organic fixed-wing air support. For the Marines, who can’t always afford ready access to heavy artillery, aircraft act as mobile fire support.

While the Harrier is not the best fighter or strike aircraft—until the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter becomes operational—it is the only short-takeoff, vertical-landing aircraft that can operate from amphibious assault ships. The subsonic attack aircraft, though perhaps a compromise in many respects, is essential to the Marines’ unique concept of operations.

The Harrier will be replaced in favor of the Joint Strike Fighter over the coming years. The service hopes to retire the venerable jet by 2025, reversing an earlier plan to keep the AV-8B in service past 2030. Instead, the Marines will keep their Boeing F/A-18A/B/C/D aircraft until the F-35B replaces those jets also.

LAV:

As a highly mobile, medium-weight force, the Marines don’t want to be weighted down by heavy armored vehicles. However, some mechanized forces are necessary.

For the Marines, many of those needs are met by versions of the General Dynamics Light Armored Vehicle series (LAV). A Marine light-armored reconnaissance battalion includes many variants of the LAV, including the LAV-25 LAV-AT, LAV-L, LAV-M, LAV-Rs and LAV-C2s, which all have their individual functions, ranging from anti-tank and anti-air to command and control.

Fast and agile, the most common LAV-25 is packed with a 25mm automatic cannon and a pair of 7.62mm machine guns. It can move at speeds exceeding 63 miles an hour.

***

When it comes to lethal weapons, the U.S. Army has no shortage. Some may be too expensive, some too complex and others may be desired by politicians and defense contractors, but not the troops on the field.

Nonetheless, today's U.S. Army can generate an astonishing amount of firepower and deliver it in a variety of settings from small-war counterinsurgency to big-war mechanized combat. With that in mind, here are five of the best U.S. Army weapons:

AH-64 Apache:

Ironic it is that the best weapon of America's premier land force is an aircraft. But given the conflicts the U.S. military has recently fought and is likely to fight, airpower is the most decisive factor.

Equipped with a 30-millimeter cannon, Hellfire missiles and sophisticated sensors, the Apache combines speed, firepower and range that allows the Army to strike enemies long before they come within firing distance of Army ground troops. It is equally useful at hunting down insurgents or decimating enemy armored columns. The Apache has fought well in conflicts from Desert Storm to the current Afghan war.

Perhaps more important, the Apache is airpower that the Army itself controls, rather than having to rely on the Air Force or Navy aircraft for close air support. An attack helicopter is not, and will never be, a substitute for infantry on the ground. But the ground troops will appreciate the support an attack helicopter can provide.

M-1 Abrams:

Whether the M-1 Abrams is the best tank in the world depends on who you talk to, and more important, what country they are from. But it is indisputably among the world's best.

Weighing in at 60 tons, the M-1A2 has a 120-millimeter cannon, depleted-uranium armor up to three feet thick and a top speed of more than 40 miles per hour. It decimated Iraq's Soviet-made armor in 1991, and quite possibly would do the same to China's advanced Type 99 tank [22]. Very few Abrams have been destroyed in combat; the fact that ISIS has destroyed or captured Iraqi government M-1s says more about the quality of the crews than the tank.

M-109A6 Paladin:

The U.S. Army's hard-hitting, self-propelled howitzers have taken a backseat in America's recent small wars. Nonetheless, they remain highly potent weapons.

The Paladin [23] is the latest version of the venerable M-109 self-propelled gun. It can shoot a 155-millimeter shell up to 20 miles using rocket-assisted projectiles. It can also fire the GPS- or laser-guided Excalibur shell [24].

TOW Anti-Tank Missile: 

Russia (or the Soviet Union) seems to be the king of anti-tank missiles, though this probably reflects the pattern of arms sales, as well as how great a threat Western-designed armor posed to Russia and its clients. So it is easy to forget that the U.S. Army is no slouch, either, at the anti-tank missile game.

The Army's TOW [25] (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missile is still going strong after nearly forty-five years of service. It has destroyed tanks—mostly Russian—in Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Iran-Iraq War and now Syria [26]. The newer TOW 2B [27] comes in several versions, including a bunker-busting missile, as well as the Aero model, which explodes above a tank to penetrate its thin top armor.

M-2 .50-Caliber Machine Gun:

It may sound strange to classify an eighty-year-old machine gun as one of the Army's best weapons. But the fact the M-2 "Ma Deuce [28]" is still blasting away after nearly a century and countless wars is testament to the fact that it is a remarkable gun.

Developed when Franklin Roosevelt had just become president and Hitler was just taking power in Germany, the M-2 has seen service all over the world as an anti-aircraft, anti-vehicle and anti-personnel machine gun that's closer in power to a small cannon. A recently upgraded version, the M2A1 [29], features a quick-change barrel and a night flash suppressor.

***

The U.S. Air Force is by far the most capable air arm on the planet. In addition to proper training and rigorous doctrine, the Air Force needs modern weapons to keep ahead of potential competitors. Over the past decade, America’s lead in the air has started to erode as Russia has slowly been recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union [30] and China has begun to remerge as a superpower [31]. Nonetheless, these following five systems are the backbone of the U.S. Air Force and should continue to hold the advantage for some time to come if ever the unthinkable occurred:

Boeing LGM-30G "Minuteman III" Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Though strategic nuclear deterrence has become less prominent since the end of the Cold War, the mission remains the single most important one for the Air Force. The backbone of America’s nuclear deterrence remains the 1960s-vintage LGM-30G Minuteman III[32]. Some 450 of these missiles form the land-based component of the so-called nuclear triad.

Over the years, the long-serving missile has been modified and upgraded with better guidance systems and new rocket motors. Though originally designed to be fitted with three multiple independent reentry vehicles each carrying a nuclear warhead, the current version of the missile carries only one 300-kiloton weapon. The United States plans to continue to upgrade that missile, but eventually will have to develop a new ICBM to replace the Minuteman. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.

The readiness of the nuclear-missile force has come into question repeatedly over the past several years. A number of officers have been caught cheating in tests—and a number of senior officers have been dismissed as a result. All of that has cast a shadow over the entire force.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit

The Air Force’s tiny fleet of twenty Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bombers is the only long-range penetrating strike asset in the service’s arsenal. No other aircraft in the Air Force inventory has the range to take off from the continental United States and strike at targets on the other side of the globe inside highly contested airspace. The B-2 has an unrefueled range of around 6000 nautical miles, but that can be extended to around 10,000 with aerial refueling.

Nor does any other warplane in the Air Force inventory have the ability to penetrate the kinds of dense air defenses against which the B-2 was designed to operate. The B-2 was designed to fly deep into the heart of the Soviet Union to deliver a payload of thermonuclear bombs in the event of a third world war. While the B-2 has never had occasion to fly that doomsday mission, those same capabilities allow the bomber to strike with near impunity against almost any target around the globe. Further, while fighters like the F-22 [33] or F-35 are very stealthy against high-frequency fire control radars [34], a large flying-wing aircraft like the B-2 is also difficult to track using low frequency radars operating in the UHF and VHF bands.

The problem for the Air Force is that there were only twenty-one B-2s ordered before the first Bush administration terminated the program. Of those twenty-one jets, one has already been lost. Not only is the fleet tiny and in high demand, the bomber has sensitive coatings and is ridiculously expensive to maintain. To make matters worse, potential adversaries like Russia and China are learning to counter the B-2 [35].

The Air Force has a follow-on bomber project called the Long Range Strike-Bomber in the works which is set to become operational in the mid-2020s. The service hopes to acquire between eighty and 100 of the new stealth bombers for a cost of $550 million per jet, which is less than the B-2’s near $2 billion price tag.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

High flying and fast, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighter is arguably the best air superiority fighter in existence. In many ways, gaining and maintaining air superiority is the core mission for the service. Only with absolute control of the air and space can ground and sea surface elements maneuver unchallenged.

The F-22 is extremely stealthy and is fitted with advanced avionics. Further, it can cruise at supersonic speeds greater than Mach 1.8 at altitudes up to 60,000 ft for extended periods. When operating at lower speeds and altitudes, it has the ability to vector thrust from its engines—which gives it tremendous maneuverability. In short, the Raptor’s combination of sheer speed, altitude, stealth and powerful sensors makes it a lethal killer.

The problem for the Air Force is that there are only 186 Raptors in its inventory—less than half of what it needs. Of those 186, only 120 are “combat coded”—which is Air Force speak for ready for war. There are only six operational Raptor squadrons, one operational training squadron and a handful of test and training assets at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Edwards Air Force Base in California. Those squadrons are also smaller than the typical Air Force fighter units. Raptor squadrons only have twenty-one jets and two attrition reserve planes. By contrast, a typical fighter squadron normally has twenty-four jets and two spares.

The Air Force is starting to investigate follow-ons to the Raptor with the F-X program.

Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle

The F-15E Strike Eagle [36] is the long-range heavy hitter of the Air Force’s fighter fleet. The Air Force has 213 of these dual-role fighters, which replaced the long-serving General Dynamic F-111 strike aircraft.

Unlike the air superiority–focused F-15C/D from which it was derived, the Strike Eagle is primarily a strike aircraft. It has far greater range and payload capacity than any other fighter in the Air Force inventory. But even with the added air-to-ground role, the F-15E remains a respectable fighter—especially in beyond-visual-range engagements.

The F-15E, like many aircraft in the Air Force’s ageing inventory, will continue to serve well into the 2030s. The service is upgrading the jets with new Raytheon APG-82 active electronically scanned array radars and other modern hardware, but a number of pilots complained that foreign versions of the jet are far better equipped. Meanwhile, while the upgrades will keep the Strike Eagle relevant into the 2030s, the Air Force has no plans to replace the venerable jets.

Originally, the Air Force had hoped to replace the Strike Eagle with a version of the F-22 Raptor, but those plans died when then defense secretary Robert Gates cancelled that program. One senior Air Force official suggested that the service should extend the production of the future LRS-B stealth bomber to fill the gap—but said that was his personal opinion, rather than service policy.

Boeing KC-135

While often overlooked, what makes the U.S. Air Force unique amongst the world’s air forces is its ability to hit targets around the globe. The KC-135 aerial refueling tanker [37] is what enables American air power to conduct its missions. That’s not just for the Air Force; the Navy and Marine Corps’ aviation assets are also dependent on the air arm’s “big wing” tankers to carry out their missions.

The Eisenhower-era KC-135 is old, and it needs to be replaced urgently. The Air Force has made several abortive attempts to recapitalize part of the fleet over the past two decades. The current Boeing KC-46 tanker effort will replace a part of the massive KC-135 fleet. However, even with the addition of 179 KC-46 tankers by 2028, the bulk of the fleet will remain KC-135s. The Air Force hopes to conduct follow-on competitions to replace the remainder of the fleet eventually.

----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----

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