The latest analysis of future long-range strike needs by thePentagon will be submitted in time for its recommendations to bereflected in the 2012 budget.
Fewpeople, least of all advocates of an active, nonvintage bomber fleet,expect exciting news. Service-centric politics, a joint-serviceconstruct under which ground forces heavily influence the study andpressure on procurement budgets (from overruns in the Joint StrikeFighter program) will result in modest recommendations.
Themost likely include the endorsement of a long-range, nonnuclearballistic missile capability, although the timescale and budget remainuncertain. The conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) concept is afavorite of Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of theJoint Chiefs.
Expect some backing but littlemoney for two other concepts: a joint-service, long-range cruisemissile, launched from Virginia-class submarines and B-52s, and theNavy’s Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N), which may be termed ameans of extending the range of a carrier air group. Both systems maybe linked to another joint-service study defining a future “air-seabattle” and focused on matching China’s growing power in the WesternPacific.
As for a future USAF bomber,conventional wisdom—i.e., views acceptable to Cartwright and DefenseSecretary Robert Gates—is that the idea merits study, over and aboveseveral dozen studies carried out in the past decade. In June, Lt. Gen.Philip Breedlove, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plansand requirements, was quoted as saying the word “bomber” can no longerbe spoken in the Pentagon and requirements “trickling down from thehighest levels” call for a much smaller aircraft. Some sources believeCartwright is pushing the idea of a USAF variant of UCAV-N.
AirForce Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary Michael Donleyhave not taken up the cause of a new bomber. The only four-star tosupport the bomber has been Strategic Command leader Gen. KevinChilton.
With little high-level support, bomberadvocates are doing what they have done before: changing the name to“reconnaissance-strike.” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, in his last pressbriefing before retirement, reiterated his view that intelligence,surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and attack missions are no longerseparate. A penetrating ISR platform that cannot be armed makes littlesense.
Industry and service studies of a newISR and strike platform appear to be converging, driven bytechnological developments, likely operational requirements and fiscalrealism.
Technologically, one factor that hasarisen in the past few years is the successful demonstration ofextremely low-observable (ELO) technology, with wideband, all-aspectsignature reductions of -40 to -50 dB. or more, under one or morecovert test programs. One step in this process may have been Boeing’sBird of Prey demonstrator, with a radar cross section (RCS) so smallthat visual signatures became dominant. A consultant on that projectwas stealth pioneer Denys Overholser, who has been involved withprojects envisioning RCS levels to -70 dB.—the size of a mosquito.
ELOmandates an all-wing or blended-wing body and tailless, subsonicconfiguration with buried engines. Advances in the computationalanalysis of the complicated airflows over such shapes improveaerodynamic efficiency and permit simpler inlet and exhaust systems,putting unrefueled ranges of 5,000 nm. within reach for a“demi-B-2”-sized aircraft. Northrop Grumman mentions an unrefueledrange of 5,600 nm. for UCAV-N, with new engines based on advancedcommercial cores.
The demonstration of reliable, long-endurance, autonomous operationsis important. Many bomber advocates agree that a new ISR/strikeaircraft should be optionally piloted. If it acquires a nuclearmission, a crew is likely to be mandatory, and crewing would easemixed-use airspace concerns. On the other hand, the aircraft would beinherently capable of operations beyond human endurance, and anunmanned mode could avoid sending crews beyond the reach ofsearch-and-rescue assets.
Northrop Grummanconcepts for an advanced unmanned ISR/strike system list a range ofautonomous functions—threat awareness and avoidance, electronic andlethal countermeasures, and cooperative defense. Onboard sensor fusionand target recognition would be combined with the ability to matchimagery with terrain, passing high-grade target information to otherassets.
Bomber advocates are monitoring laserweapons in the 100-kw.-class, considered adequate to kill an incomingmissile. Combined with ELO, this could give a bomber the ability tosurvive against current and projected threats.
Asurvivable aircraft with a large and diverse payload has advantages. Itcan prosecute targets of uncertain location, and its range is a hedgeagainst antiaccess and area-denial strategies. Unlike the smaller UCAV,it carries a mix of weapons.
The biggestchallenge to the bomber is price. Procurement cost in the $500-millionrange is likely, equivalent to 4-5 JSFs, but carrying 4-5 times thewarload five times farther. The total investment in a force of 100 newbombers would be about the same as the cost of replacing Tridentsubmarines. But, as enthusiasts suggest, the bombers would deliversimilar or greater longevity and more flexibility.