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War Birds

The flying workhorses of the U.S. military

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Captured: Inside the Army's Secret School
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Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf is director of operational requirements, deputy chief of staff for Air and Space Operations, for the U.S. Air Force. As director, he establishes policy for operational requirements. The directorate supports major commands in requirements development and evaluation for Air Force-wide modernization programs, including fighters, bombers, mobility aircraft, space systems, command and control, munitions and missile defense. CNN interviewed him at the Pentagon.

On his Pentagon office's role

My role in the modernization of existing or legacy airplanes is to help to find what upgrades they need, whether it's an upgrade to keep it viable, keep that aircraft viable in meeting a certain threat, or providing a capability or simply being reliable enough, maintainable enough that we can continue to afford to operate it. And an emerging area that we modernize is in our operability, the ability of our weapons and weapon systems to fit in with the other systems and constructs that they operate in.

On the history of the B-52 bomber

Our remaining B-52s (the B-52 H model) -- which are 40 years old now -- are still around for a very complex collection of reasons. But the first and most important reason is people. The innovative thinkers that designed the airplane to begin with forced us to jets when there was a temptation to field another propeller bomber. (They) built room for growth in it and had an aerodynamically sophisticated enough - although very big - airframe that allowed it to continue to fly. And then of course there are the great men and women who fly the aircraft in combat and who maintain it, especially the maintainers whose sweat and tears keep the airplanes flying. We've got to give people credit first.

The shift of the B-52s mission and of the threat environment and where and how we might fight is also very key to why the B-52 is still a viable weapon system. It was envisioned as a penetrating strategic nuclear bomber. That gave it a robust system for navigation, for communications and for weapons delivery for its time. So it had a good starting point. It also gave it a fairly undemanding flight profile early in its life and we haven't worn it out.

And though it flies with a heavy load and certainly there are structural challenges to maintain the older aircraft of any size, it hasn't been subjected to the kinds of stresses that a fighter aircraft would.

And though we put many B-52s through their paces over Vietnam in the conventional bombing or over Iraq during (Operation) Desert Storm, and where I saw them personally over Serbia and Kosovo in (Operation) Allied Force before Afghanistan even, there still is airframe life left in them. And we've transitioned its principal utilization from penetration in a robust threat environment to standoff as its principal mode of employment. And I'd really like to stress that. We've employed it in direct attack in Afghanistan, flying over the target, basically dropping a direct attack weapon, a bomb or a cluster munition because it could, with the (lack of) air defense threat in Afghanistan. Fly right over the target, in fact in some cases loiter over the target, and survive without being shot down, without really being threatened too much. In another scenario its principal mode of employment -- and where it fits in to our three-bomber force mix -- is as a standoff weapons carrier. So if we go against an adversary that has a highly capable air defense system, the B-52 will standoff and address the problem with cruise missiles, where it's out of the enemy threat range and it penetrates enemy air space not with the airplane itself but with cruise missiles.

On the B-52s use of precision guided munitions

With the B-52 we can operate up in a very high, relative attackable altitudes, 30,000-to-40,000 foot regime, precisely program our joint direct attack munitions with coordinates provided by the troops on the ground and put down a lot of iron on enemy targets very quickly. And I think that's an important point to talk about that was a new concept out of Enduring Freedom. And it's attributable to the B-52 and the B-1. We have to give the B-1, another fine airplane, credit. It's just younger than the B-52. And I have a great respect for age, as I get older. But the two bombers really did employ mass precision. We've bombed with big aircraft and lots of bombs before. And some have called it carpet-bombing. I don't know that that's ever been a particularly good term because I don't know that you can cover like a carpet. And we'd never do it with that kind of geographic disregard or lack of specificity. But now with JDAM in these big bombers, the B-52 and the B-1, we can take a string of joint direct attack munitions and if the enemy is in a trench line on the military crest of a ridge, something that from my time on the ground with our army you think this a pretty good place to be. I'm dug in to very difficult terrain and I'm at the optimum point along a ridgeline, great.

And with precision bombs in the past they've been limited to one two three maybe four precision bombs on an aircraft. Now with the B-52 and the B-1 and the joint direct attack munitions, the Taliban and al Qaeda watched weapons walked down their trench line position after position after position. Very precisely, hitting right where they were. Something I don't think has ever been seen in combat before. And if you accept the thesis that the Taliban and al Qaeda had great confidence because they persevered over the Soviets, I would submit that may be the moment they knew they weren't fighting the Soviets.

On the image of the B-52 in the sky

I can speak of that from personal experience. First I think our ability to persist and take that massive aircraft up in the contrails (the condensation trails left by the engines) and have the enemy know they were always at risk when the B-52s were over there, that had to have a tremendous psychological effect. And war is still a fundamentally human endeavor. For all the technology we employ, it's a human endeavor. That had to be pretty doggone disconcerting, especially given the precision effects that we had. From my perspective it has the same effect on friendly forces, the same kind of psychological impact. I remember in early June of 1999 near the end of the war, flying a sortie in Kosovo, finishing my work over the target area with the other F-16 I was flying with. And the two of us egressing the target area, broad daylight on a beautiful sunny day and looking up and seeing two B-52s in the contrails entering enemy territory to go straight targets. And we thought that here we have at that time nearly 50-year-old massive relatively slow aircraft, fully visible to the enemy, still extremely capable and able to fly over enemy territory in broad daylight. That tells me we got a pretty doggone good Air Force and a great country that can make that work.

The B-52 is an icon. It is an icon for American strength deterrence and innovation and our ability to do things that no other air force, no other nation can, from a technological standpoint, from a conceptual and a human standpoint. It an icon of American air power.

On setting priorities for military spending

I understand the affection that B-52 crews, that C-130 crews, that F-16 or F-15 pilots have for their aircraft but the truth is, it's part of a complex tapestry of capabilities that we've got to have to meet changing situations, differing requirements to conduct operations in combat or contingence.

The most important thing we have to determine, we being the entire Air Force operational community, is what kind of effects is our nation going to our nation going to ask us to achieve in combat? What must we do? And right now we're dividing those up in a series of concepts of operations or con-ops. In one that we label the Global Strike Task Force, we look at responding quickly to an adversary that would deny access through the use of advance surface-to-air defenses or weapons of mass destruction. So what do we need to do? We need to first of all take away that strategy from them and let other forces besides our stealthy penetrating aircraft operate. Hit their high value targets and so on. And from those effects we define capabilities. What do you need to do? Capability, you might need would be to operate out of austere locations and provide intra-theater airlift or conduct close air support from a persistent, high-volume platform, like the AC-130 (gunship). Notice that the last thing I got to is the aircraft or weapon solution. And so we start with what are we asked to do? What do what do we need to achieve for the nation? To achieve those broader objectives or effects what specific capabilities do we want and then how do we provide that capability? Is it an airplane? Is it a weapon? Is it a satellite? And we make those rack-and-stack determinations of our priorities. And then of course we take into account the physical reality. What are affordable solutions? Because there are tons of great ideas that the nation can't afford and we try to strike a good balance.

My opinion is that we are a uniformed service in a representative democracy where we are rightly submitted to civilian oversight. We spend a lot of time with our civilian leadership in the Department of Defense and on the Hill in Congress and in the executive branch explaining how we have determined our requirements, what we need to accomplish. We're not always in agreement. And, by the way, we're not always right. That's why we have this oversight system. So it is a normal process of a representative democracy. And it's not a yes (or) no binary answer. It a question who thinks what priorities are important. And I'm very comfortable with the way our government works. It's not perfect. It's just the best system there is.

Related site

Leaf's Pentagon biography