Dr. Rebecca Grant (r.) and Gen. John Corley made their case for a new stealth bomber (Edwin Rios / Medill)

WASHINGTON – The shift of military resources toward the Asia-Pacific region signals a need for new stealth bombers able to combat potential threats, deal with  growing demands, and offset attrition of older aircraft, the president of a public policy research organization said Tuesday.

Dr. Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent research, said the emerging strategic environment called for investment in a new stealth bomber — what Grant called a “long-range strike” plane — capable of “intelligence and surveillance,” as well as “round the clock strikes.”

In January, President Barack Obama outlined a new defensive strategy that put an emphasis on a more agile military and shifted the focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

In her paper, “The Case for a New Stealth Bomber,” Grant wrote the Air Force’s bomber fleet of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s – a stealth plane — is “on the brink of not being able to carry out complex missions or provide credible deterrence in all scenarios.”

Grant served as director of the William Mitchell Institute of Airpower Studies, an arm of the Air Force Association focused on research on airpower. She analyzed concepts of long-range strike and fighter program readiness levels.

Grant said the Air Force should aim for a fleet of 200 stealth planes — double the amount of the force’s projected number by 2020. She said the presence of stealth bombers in Guam to deter potential threats in the Pacific region over the past year shows where the Obama administration’s changing defense priorities lay.

The Air Force, however, has suffered from attrition. It has only 20 B-2 bombers, developed in the early 1980s, in its inventory, while it carries 76 B-52, developed in the late 1940s, according Grant’s paper.

The paucity of modern bombers signals an incapability to handle modern threats, Grant said. She said the air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan occurred in a “benign” weaponry environment, and that countries are starting to develop missiles capable of bringing down older bombers.

“We don’t have enough now, and as these threats increase, we need to bring more,” she said.

Peter Singer, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute, said there is a need for an investment in stealth bombers – and its overdue. He cited the aging problem of the current air fleet and the dwindling number of bombers as causes for concern.

“[When talking about the B-52], you’re talking about a plane designed back when vinyl players were the phase,” he said. “When you start looking at bomber planes the same way you look at aircraft carriers, the risk of losing one or two becomes a strategic problem.”

The expense of such a project, however, remains to be seen. Grant said projected costs of each stealth bomber would be $550 million. Costs may change, she said, based on the bombers’ sizes, engineering costs and the time at which purchases are made.

“Although average unit costs for a penetrating bomber could be significantly less than the $2 billion paid for each B-2 stealth bomber, finding $40 billion to $50 billion for a new program will still be a difficult challenge for the Defense Department, especially in today’s economic climate,” wrote Mark Gunzinger, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Gunzinger’s paper analyzed long-range strikes.

A recent RAND Project Air Force study found cruise missiles cost more than bombers over the long term. It showed that given more than 20 days of combat over a 30-year period, “penetrating stealth bombers cost less than expendable missiles for similar missions.” RAND looked at using either bombers or missiles to hit a number of targets during conflict.

Grant conceded that new bombers have significant upfront costs, but she said, unlike missiles, “the fact is, you can use them over and over again”

Retired Air Force Gen. John Corley said the program’s success will be determined on the cooperation between the Defense Department of Defense and industry supporters, a partnership that will “not only give the capability, but give the capacity” to engage on growing threats.

“The days of a rapidly growing defense budget are over, given our current economic system,” Singer said. “We need this capability, but we also have to recognize the political and fiscal realities. There’s going to be tradeoffs.”