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Top US general Petraeus in bitchslap for 'Bones'

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General David Petraeus - the famous US officer who oversaw the "surge" in Iraq and is now set to take over the war in Afghanistan - has delivered a stinging bitchslap to the US Air Force's fleets of heavy manned bombers. Petraeus says that a mighty 200 tonne, quarter-billion-dollar B-1 "Lancer" is "almost" as good as having a much cheaper unmanned aircraft.

The bitchslap was administered earlier this week in the form of a left-handed compliment during Petraeus' confirmation hearings in Washington DC prior to assuming command in Afghanistan.

Military.com reports that one of the legislators grilling Petraeus was Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a state home to a large airbase full of B-1B Lancer heavy strategic bombers.

With the US services facing imminent budget pain following the recent economic crisis, senior airforce figures have lately speculated that the B-1 fleet could be cut, as supersonic heavy bombers' usefulness in modern warfare is questioned by many.

This would be bad news for Thune and his pork-hungry constituents, so he took a break from probing Petraeus' fitness for command to squeeze an endorsement for the B-1 out of the general.

Petraeus did his best to comply, saying that the B-1 (sometimes known as "Bones", from "B-one") is "a great platform ... it carries a heck of a lot of bombs".

This is undeniably true. In just one incident during May last year, a single B-1 dropped no less than five 500-pounder and three blockbusting 2000-pounder bombs on an Afghan village. These four tons of munitions utterly destroyed a mosque, a shrine and various other buildings, and killed a reported 140 people.

Episodes such as this have caused massive disaffection among Afghans and led Petraeus' predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal*, to order a stringent and hotly-debated cutback on the use of airstrikes and other massive firepower - which Petraeus has confirmed will remain largely in place under his command. The ability to carry a "heck of a lot of bombs" isn't actually much of a selling point these days.

Perhaps feeling he hadn't quite done enough, then, Petraeus went on to add that the B-1 is also useful as a flying spyeye for observing events beneath. Ground commanders in recent years have been almost insatiably hungry for aerial surveillance coverage, and such capability is seen as a real war-winner.

Unfortunately Petraeus couldn't quite manage to avoid revealing that there are much, much cheaper and better ways of providing such coverage.

"[The B-1] is almost like having another unmanned aerial vehicle in terms of full motion video and so forth,” he added. (Our emphasis.)

A Sky Warrior UAV, however, costs just $7.5m as opposed to something on the order of $250m for a B-1B. The Warrior, in addition to being better at the main mission - surveillance - also carries smart Hellfire missiles, a much more surgical weapon than anything the B-1 can offer.

Petraeus' comments are being viewed in some quarters as a "hearty shout out" for the Lancer.

Not so much, we'd suggest. ®

Bootnote

*For those readers who missed all the brouhaha, McChrystal - a long-serving former commander of the ultra-secret, blacker-than-black "Tier One" special ops JSOC supertroops - was recently fired following disparaging public comments regarding senior Obama administration officials by him and his personal staff.

Petraeus was asked to take a step down from his post as boss of US Central Command - into which he was promoted following his perceived "surge" success in Iraq - to supersede McChrystal. A British general is in temporary charge until he can take the reins.

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