Key to New Long-range Bomber Is Adaptability, Panel Says

WASHINGTON ??? When Pentagon officials finally award the contract for production of a new U.S. long-range strike bomber (LRS-B), the tight secrecy associated with its development may be relaxed just enough to give Congress and the public some idea of what their money will buy.

Speculation about what LRS-B would look like, what features might be incorporated into it, or even if it is a single or a “family” of aircraft, was part of a panel discussion Monday (Feb. 23) at the National Press Club organized by Dr. Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, a public-policy research organization in Washington, DC, and director of the Washington Security Forum.

That LSR-B may be only part of a family of systems, and what constitutes other members of the family is not yet known outside of the government, military and industry groups with clearance access to the information, panelists said.

The possibilities within the family include: standoff systems that operate at a distance from a battlefield, electronic warfare systems, decoys, cyber weapons, Navy and Army systems and the “combat cloud” itself, said Curtis M. Bedke, a retired USAF major general and former B-52 command pilot who worked on the early acquisition of the B-2 program. The combat cloud refers to the emerging notion of data sharing between ships, aircraft, and satellites, Aviation Week says.

News reports over the last year have speculated that the LRS-B would be another triangular flying wing type of aircraft, but whatever its shape, panelists all agreed that the United States needs a new long-range bomber.

“We like to deter and defeat threats before they reach our shores,” said Mark Gunzinger a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “And we want to be able to project power.” Gunzinger is a retired Air Force Colonel, B-52 Command Pilot and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Transformation and Resources.

Requirements for longevity

A key requirement for any future long-range bomber would be the ability to incorporate modifications as technology develops ??? just as the Air Force has substantially modified the B-52 introduced 61 years ago. Potential U.S. “enemies have observed our methods” and “are learning how to strike back,” said Ret. USAF Lt. Gen. Chris Miller, a former B-1 pilot Miller who retired as Deputy Chief of Strategic Plans and Programs, Headquarters, USAF.

The number of existing bombers has dwindled to 120, Grant said. Among the mission-ready bomber are 54 B-52 Stratofortresses introduced in 1954, 50 B-1B Lancers introduced in 1983, and 16 B-2 Spirits introduced in 1989.

In addition to stealth technology and the ability to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons, the bomber would need to be adaptable to new weapons systems and other technologies as they are developed, including directed energy weapons, new defensive systems and autonomy, Grant said.

While it seems logical that any new military aircraft would be designed with the ability to be flown by a pilot in the cockpit and remotely operated, no one could say whether or not that would be a feature of LRS-B. Panelists agreed that stealth technology in the LRS-B environment is one of the entry requirements for a new bombing platform, although that is only part of the package.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert in a Feb. 9 speech described the limitations of stealth technology. “Stealth may be overrated,” Greenert said. “Let’s face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat ??? I don’t care how cool the engine can be, it’s going to be detectable,” according to the Navy Times account of the speech.

The age and structural limitations of current bombers limit their effectiveness, panelists said. While systems within the aircraft can be modified, the shape and basic capabilities of the platforms can’t be modernized, “we just can’t ride the platforms we have,” Miller said. “We’ve got to get the basics right,” Miller said. History shows that we have to keep the airplanes for a very long time.”

Panelists acknowledged the limits of the technology. “Stealth won’t penetrate heavily defended areas,” Gunzinger said.

“You still need stealth,” but you still need other things, Bedke said. “You don’t give up” because the measures, countermeasures and counter-countermeasures environment becomes more complicated. Bedke ran the Air Force Research Laboratory from 2007 to 2010.

Panelists saw inherent flaws in bombers firing missiles from stand-off battlefield ranges. It’s difficult to use a cruise missile against a moving target from 500 to 1,000 miles off and without intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, Gunzinger said. Effectiveness against such targets requires penetration to the target, he added.

Panelists scoffed at the notion of keeping pilots out of harm’s way as the reason for employing remote aircraft operation. Gunzinger noted that “nothing is inherently good or bad about unmanned capability in aircraft. We shouldn’t jump to it just because we can.”

Price tag

Cost estimates range from $55 billion to $90 billion for 80 to 100 bombers designed to replace the B-52H, the B-1B and the B2 that now make up the U.S. inventory of long-range strike platforms.

The price tag for the B-2, the most recent long-range bomber in the U.S. arsenal, was a hefty $2 billion each, a cost which makes some folks skittish about funding a new system.

However, “they cost so much because we build so few of them,” Miller said. The initial reduction of the planned 132 B-2s to 75 increased the cost by 42%, Grant said. Only 20 were built, of which 16 are available for combat missions, Grant said.

High production numbers mean lower unit costs, and Grant advocates the production of 200 LRS-B systems to ensure that U.S. defense needs are met further into the 21st century.

The Air Force announced last year that it would award the contract for the LRS-B this spring.

One recent estimate speculates that the contract will be announced in June, but like the program’s features, no one really knows.

David Alan Coia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Arlington, VA.