Defense Secretary Gates has given the Air Force the go-ahead for a new long range bomber. Will be optionally piloted and nuclear capable.

by Bill Sweetman at 1/18/2011
Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ announcement on January 6 that the US Air Force would get the go-ahead for a new bomber – at least, approval to restart the requirements process that he put on hold in April 2009 – could turn out to be a historic move.


It is a big turnaround since last summer, when it seemed that even mentioning a new bomber was more than anyone dared to do. And the Obama team has become the first administration since the Carter years to change its mind about bombers – and possibly for the same reasons.

There is a long road ahead for a new bomber. One thing that Gates did not do was set a timeline, saying only that it should be “ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service.” The USAF, though, has projected that the current fleet could last for decades and (given enough money) it probably could.

But that’s not the point: the real need for a new bomber rests on the fact that only 20 US bombers, the B-2 force, are capable of operating against any serious air threat, and those aircraft do not offer high sortie rates.

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Timing is not only a factor of need but of available budget, which will in turn depend on the national priority given to the bomber as part of a long-range strike family of systems. That is an area where bomber advocates will have to work hard in the next year or two.

Even in the long-range strike arena, the bomber will have to compete with Conventional Prompt Global Strike – which despite being a niche capability is a favorite of some senior Pentagon leaders – an Air Force/Navy replacement cruise missile, or a smaller USAF/USN unmanned combat air vehicle.

It is nevertheless a good sign that some key decisions have been taken (even if not everyone agrees with them). The aircraft will be a real bomber (“long range and penetrating”). It will be nuclear-capable, resolving an argument between Strategic Command – whose leaders made the point that nuclear hardening should cost much less if done from the outset rather than being retrofitted – and others who wanted to keep the bomber away from the world of arms control.

It will be optionally piloted: This was largely an internal bomber-community argument. One of the advantages of a bomber with today’s technology is potentially enormous persistence and productivity, flying missions with multiple air refuelings beyond the limits of human endurance. (You’ll note that the 40-plus-hour B-2 missions against Serbia and in the early Afghanistan days have not been repeated.)

The bomber’s pilots are unlikely to engage any targets visually or operate in close formations, so from that viewpoint there is no driving need for a human occupant. And there is no requirement for combat search and rescue coverage.

On the other hand, the pilots are an insurance:  against datalink failures, against host nations worried about the idea of a robot wandering through their airspace with 15,000-20,000 pounds of explosives on board, against concerns about nuclear weapons on an unmanned platforms. Fortunately, the bomber will be large enough to make the penalty of carrying a cockpit, in weight, cost and shaping, an affordable premium.

Also likely to be discussed is the bomber’s mission – which is likely to embrace ISR as well as strike. The air defense system itself would be one target. Given the right sensors, the elements of an S-300/400 system are difficult to hide or disguise. Neither is a mobile ballistic missile launcher.

It may also be illuminating to look at this recent announcement:  this is a concept that works today, but stooging around in a Joint STARS in an air-sea battle environment is going to be nobody’s idea of fun if the adversary extends the reach of his air defenses.

Gates’s statement that the bomber will be “designed and developed using proven technologies” begs a question. Any subsonic aircraft with a mission that involves not just penetrating a 2020s-and-beyond networked air defense system, but persisting in its presence, will require a level of stealth that has not been proven yet.

At least, not in any disclosed program, which is where the Carter analogy comes in. Not many months after canceling the B-1A,  the Carter team was defining requirements for what became the B-2 – because of a breakthrough in stealth technology.


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