An artist’s concept of the future bomber. Pentagon officials say the time to get started on a next generation bomber is now.
The B-52, B-1, and B-2—now about 50, 26, and 18 years old respectively—receive meticulous care, their every movement recorded and tracked to ensure long-term health. Based on this scrutiny, as well as ongoing structural fatigue tests and computer modeling, the Air Force believes the B-52s and B-1s will be safe to operate through 2040 and the B-2s through 2058.
However, as potential adversaries acquire better defenses, the existing bombers’ ability to get close enough to targets to be effective will continue to deteriorate. Already, against today’s toughest air defenses, the B-52 and B-1 are largely relegated to a standoff role; only the B-2 is expected to get through.
In the years to come, the B-2’s ability to penetrate will also decline. This will be true even though USAF will upgrade all three bombers with new systems and weapons.
Increasingly at Risk
Of all the myths circulating about USAF’s plans for long-range strike, the biggest one "is that the nation doesn’t need a new bomber," according to Lt. Gen. Christopher D. Miller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs.
The current fleet has been upgraded over the years with new weapons and electronic warfare systems, but it is "increasingly at risk to modernizing air defenses," he said. "We need to start now to replace the aging B-52 and B-1 bomber inventories."
B-1s on the line at Ellsworth AFB, S.D. B-1s carry the largest payload of weapons, but would be relegated to standoff missions in many high threat environments.
As recently as last July, however, consensus on a new bomber within the top ranks of the Pentagon seemed elusive. Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told defense reporters last summer he continued to play devil’s advocate on the need for a bomber, or at least why there should be any provision for making it a manned aircraft. Other nuclear systems, such as ICBMs and submarine launched ballistic missiles, Cartwright said, don’t need a human crew to provide nuclear surety, and he also worried a new bomber would be unaffordable.
Cartwright did not address the value of having a nuclear-armed system that could be recalled or retargeted enroute, something not possible with ICBMs and SLBMS. "I think you have to have a bomber," Cartwright admitted, adding, however, that he feels bombers are too slow to react to some targets.
Despite the Air Force’s certitude about the new airplane, Miller acknowledged in December there still was no operational requirements document (ORD) specifying its characteristics and capabilities, despite the bomber getting the go-ahead well over a year ago.
An artist’s concept of the Long-Range Strike-Bomber. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley says procuring the LRS-B is one of USAF’s top three acquisition priorities.
The new aircraft program is called the LRS-B, for Long-Range Strike-Bomber. Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley in recent months has touted the aircraft as the service’s third-highest acquisition priority—after the KC-46 tanker and the F-35 fighter. It is among the special few programs the Air Force will fight to protect from budget cuts, Donley said, because a core function of the service is "to hold at risk" targets anywhere on the globe.
The LRS-B’s funding will be unclassified, but almost everything else about it is secret, Miller said. He confirmed details previously revealed about the aircraft: The Air Force wants to buy 80 to 100 platforms; it will be capable of manned or unmanned operations; initial versions won’t be nuclear-capable but later versions will be; and it will be developed largely from existing, mature technologies, especially in the area of signature and propulsion.
More broadly, Miller said, the LRS "family of systems" will include elements performing intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, communications, and electronic warfare. To keep the cost of the bomber down, these systems may or may not be present on the aircraft itself, but could be added as offboard building blocks depending on the severity of the threat in the target area.
A DARPA artist’s concept of the future strategic strike aircraft. Part of the package will be a new standoff missile that will eventually be carried by the B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers.
Despite its very low observability on radar, for example, the B-2 has been backed up in almost all its combat missions by jamming support from other aircraft—often Navy EA-6B Prowlers or, as in the recent Libyan campaign, by EA-18 Growlers.
USAF’s thinking about LRS, he said, is, "we’re moving away from the idea that any single platform ... has to be able to do all aspects" of any given mission. "Every platform will be designed with its place in that family of systems in mind," he said, and while the Air Force has a concept for what the family is today, the elements "may change ... based on how the threat evolves."
One of the principal criticisms of the new bomber program is cost. In the case of the B-2 and F-22 fighter, an industrial capability was created to produce many aircraft rapidly, only to have them built at a trickle when procurement funding was reduced. Unit costs subsequently soared.
"The Air Force learned a lot from the B-2," Miller noted. "I don’t think we want to make those mistakes again." He wouldn’t say whether it’s been decided if the new bomber will be built at a slow but steady rate, but the service is "aware" of the dangers of expecting big annual production numbers and will work to ensure "we don’t have that same thing happen to us in the future."
Miller declined to give much detail on the mid-2020s target for having the new bomber, but noted that the decision to declare an aircraft operational is made by the operational commander at the time. He also pointed out that developmental weapons are sometimes rushed into service long before they are technically declared operational.
Lt. Gen. Christopher Miller (r) listens to Col. Jose Rivera (l) discuss equipment issues at Robins AFB, Ga. Miller says the new bomber will fit into a family of systems.
The new cruise missile will be chiefly a replacement for the ALCM, capable of doing things the stealthy but conventional AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cannot do. US Strategic Command "is looking for something to do a variety of things they need done," Miller said. "The long-range standoff that they need is probably more than what a JASSM can do."
The missile is particularly important not only because without it the B-52 will lose its nuclear capability when the ALCM retires, but also because, when faced with high-threat environments, all three current bombers will eventually fall back to a role of launching standoff missiles. As they age, they will increasingly need to stay well outside the reach of enemy defensive systems.
Several studies have touted hypersonic cruise missiles as a promising way to keep the current fleet of bombers in the strategic mix, since a hypersonic weapon would give a standoff platform nearly the same immediacy of effect as a penetrating bomber.
Miller said he didn’t know if the missile would be constrained by the same "off-the-shelf" technology mentality slated for the new bomber’s development as a way to reduce risk.
"That doesn’t mean we don’t invest in things that are difficult or expensive," Miller said. But "if we are going to stretch for the last half-percent of capability, this is a tough time to do that."
The issue of funding is the single most important factor affecting the bomber at this point. Paul K. Meyer, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s advanced programs and technology division, said it is fair to say that even without an ORD, industry has enough information to start working on a bomber, and the "mid-2020s" is feasible based on the resources invested so far.
"The question is, are those resources still going to remain?" Meyer asked.
Before the Air Force focused on the new bomber, it was partnered with the Navy on the Joint Unmanned Combat Aircraft System program, or J-UCAS. That program lives on today as a Navy-only program and Northrop Grumman is now test flying the X-47.
Meyer said the X-47—which has the classic flying-wing lines of a stealth aircraft—is not likely to be a prototype for the new bomber.
"Airplanes don’t scale well," he said, noting that the LRS-B will be a much larger airplane than the X-47, though not as large as the B-2, also built by Northrop. The X-47 is optimized for carrier operations "and not for a long runway." Still, "it obviously has the right design features for signature," and while the shape of a Northrop-proposed LRS-B would be different, "the technology is scalable to a different design."
Crew chiefs SrA. Nathan Jacobson (l) and A1C Tyler Lyght monitor a B-52 at Minot AFB, N.D. The Air Force expects to operate the venerable bomber through 2040.
Speaking about the major aerospace companies, Meyer said, "We’ve all been working these problems for several decades, so one would think the answer is there." He added, "A high driver is affordability."
Going One Deep
Meyer could not say what direction the Air Force has given contractors about how the LRS-B program will be structured, but he believes the service is anxious to get the benefits of competition. That’s not to say it won’t consider teams, Meyer said, and Northrop would be willing to team if it gives the company a better chance "to be selected."
Several years ago, Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed a team to pursue a previous incarnation of the LRS-B, then known as the Next Generation Bomber. The companies are reluctant to discuss the arrangement now; various officials from both companies have said it effectively ended when the NGB was canceled.
However, the teaming arrangement is still on the books, Boeing Military Aircraft President Christopher M. Chadwick said at last summer’s Paris Air Show. The two companies will look at the ORD when it is released, and then explore "what our teaming options are." The agreement "did not have a time constraint" on it, but "it can be dissolved; all options are on the table," he said.
An artist’s concept of a strategic bomber. Northrop Grumman officials believe that there is enough information available to begin work on the new bomber.
Another urgent matter for the new bomber program is the issue of the industrial base. Without something to work on, industry would be hard-pressed to keep design talent on the payroll.
Three years ago, "across industry, we gave [the Pentagon] ... a minimum level of investment that’s required by industry to sustain robust design teams," Meyer said. At the time, "things weren’t looking too good, and they aren’t looking any better now." When asked by the Pentagon for a number, industry said it would take "about $100 million a year" per company to "sustain and maintain more than ‘one deep’ in a variety of technical talent skill areas that are necessary for any advanced design," he said. Those skill areas are in "aerodynamics, low observables, avionics, electronics, design, and the logistics support that goes along with that."
Meyer said such a level of funding is needed because, "whether it’s weaponization or battle management control, it takes about that much to work with your other industry partners, fully understand the maturity of the technology, do some preliminary integration and tests," so that a concept "can then be validated in [wind] tunnels and other kinds of test activities."
Does the steady advance in anti-access, area-denial capabilities around the world mean the Air Force must have the new bomber ready for service by a specific deadline?
"I think that decision has been given to us," Miller replied.
"Now is the time to get started."
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.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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