The stealthy B-2 bomber has long range and a big weapon-carrying capacity, but only fights at night and thus cannot prosecute critical daytime targets.
The B-1B, though supersonic, lacks stealth or standoff weapons.
What’s missing, say officials, is an aircraft that can strike from a great distance, survive in a dangerous environment, carry a heavy bomb load, and operate effectively around the clock, in good weather or bad.
Air Combat Command recently conducted an analysis of alternatives for such an aircraft, and the Air Force has decided which capabilities it will seek in its next generation long-range strike system. The study evaluated “midterm” requirements, the state of technology, and the need to have a fully operational aircraft on the ramp in 2018.
“Our analysis shows that the best value, and the one that meets the requirement that we see in ... the 2018 time frame, would in fact be for a new-concept bomber,” said Maj. Gen. Mark T. Matthews, head of ACC plans and programs.
Matthews had another declaration. “Our belief is that the bomber should be manned,” he said at a May 1 Air Force Association-sponsored event in Washington, D.C. There had been considerable speculation in recent years that the next long-range strike system might be unmanned or optionally manned.
As Matthews tells it, an airman in the cockpit can respond to adaptable enemies hiding in the fog of war, better integrate the onboard systems, and make spot decisions about when and how to launch weapons. “In the 2018 time frame, we haven’t obviated yet the need to have [a] man in the cockpit,” he said, “so that’s going to be a large part of the requirement.”
The next bomber must be able to get through air defense systems that would blunt attacks from today’s B-1s and B-52s. In a nutshell, the need is to “penetrate and persist,” said Maj. Gen. David E. Clary, ACC vice commander.
The bomber will be subsonic, as are today’s B-2 and B-52 aircraft. That puts an end to the question of whether a practical hypersonic jet aircraft could be built within the next decade. Even a B-1-style supersonic jet aircraft was deemed too expensive.
Marginal improvements at great cost are not necessarily desirable. Major defense contractors certainly have the ability to build a supersonic stealth bomber, but USAF leaders simply deemed the cost of doing so too high.
Supersonic speed adds considerable complexity and cost to a design, and is not the be-all and end-all for strike aircraft. A case in point is the B-52, which first flew in 1952, has a top speed of 0.86 Mach, and remains a vital part of the nation’s air fleet. In the meantime, the B-58 Hustler and FB-111—each capable of flying at twice the speed of sound—have come and gone.
This next generation system may be in the medium-bomber class, as today’s heavy bombers feature about twice the minimum range and double the weapons load as this proposal. The 2018 bomber’s payload specs and minimum range are in the same class as the FB-111, today’s F-15E Strike Eagle, and even the notional FB-22.
In May, the proposed bomber requirements had been approved by the Air Force requirements council, but were awaiting blessing by the Joint Staff.
The Air Force still has an interest in less-mature technologies such as hypersonic speed, but those kinds of advanced development efforts will be directed toward a follow-on system scheduled to appear around 2034, when the existing fleet of bombers may be on its last legs, structurally speaking.
A new system will be able to incorporate all the advances that have occurred since work began on the B-2 in the late 1970s and go beyond the upgrades that are being retrofitted onto today’s bombers.
The new bomber campaign marks something of a turnaround in USAF’s thinking. Eight years ago, the Air Force determined that its existing bomber fleet could persevere for decades. The controversial 1999 bomber roadmap proposed delaying the start of a new acquisition program until 2019 and not fielding that bomber until 2037.
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley, former commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Air Combat Command, also expressed concern about the lag in bomber production. He noted at AFA’s May 1 bomber forum that an old aircraft’s ability to keep flying does not necessarily mean it will be effective in combat.
But the Air Force has traditionally “not replaced airplanes because they started falling apart,” Hawley noted. “We’ve replaced fleets ... because the environment in which they operate had changed and we needed a new capability.”
The Air Force has stepped up the required fielding date for a next generation bomber several times since 1999 and now embraces a three-stage approach for bomber modernization.
This system may feature capabilities such as directed energy (lasers), advanced engine technology, or hypersonic speed.
AHFM replaces the original tapes and caulks used to seal access panels and fasteners on the B-2 with a “spray on” coating that is applied much more quickly. The “cure time” before the bomber is ready to return to action is also much faster.
The B-2 is getting other sustainment and capability upgrades as well. The radar is a “secondary user” on its frequency, which can interfere with commercial users, and it will be replaced by a new active electronically scanned array. New weapons computers, nuclear-survivable communications, and low-maintenance windshields are also desired.
“It is time to gather up all these Rube Goldberg additions and integrate them” on the B-1, said Clary.
In a B-1, “I can sit over Afghanistan for eight to 10 hours” and reach any point in the country in about 20 minutes, he noted. The Sniper targeting pods will become operational in the summer of 2008, if everything goes according to plan on an aggressive schedule.
The Air Force’s oldest bomber is also its most reliable, but currently has excess capacity. USAF has proposed drawing down the B-52 fleet to 56 aircraft, 32 of which would be combat coded.
Additional aircraft come at a price, however.
US Strategic Command requirements are always a part of the equation for figuring out how many B-52s the Air Force needs, and demand for nuclear cruise missiles has declined as well.
Recent plans call for USAF to retire all of its ACMs and cut the ALCM fleet by more than 500 missiles, leaving 528 nuclear cruise missiles. Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg, director of strategic security, said the ALCM force would be consolidated at Minot AFB, N.D., and all excess cruise missile bodies would be destroyed.
Burg explained that the ACM was singled out for elimination partly because it has reliability issues and higher maintenance costs.
The option of converting decommissioned ALCMs to non-nuclear CALCMs “will be evaluated,” said Burg, but “we’re talking about technology that is 25 years old.” Furthermore, additional conversions are not in the budget.
The Air Force has already received about 600 of the conventionally armed JASSMs, but they have only worked about 60 percent of the time in flight tests. Sue C. Payton, Air Force acquisition executive, described that reliability rate as “not acceptable.”
Unmanned systems have also been in flux. The Air Force has abandoned the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, and its 2018 bomber will be manned, but that does not mean unmanned strike is dead. The more readily attainable systems—namely, Predators and Reapers—are being purchased and deployed as quickly as possible.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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