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US $250m superbomber 'almost as good' as $8m robot

Top US general Petraeus in bitchslap for 'Bones'

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. 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. ®


*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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