Pentagon Bomber Evolution Underway

 The latest analysis of future long-range strike needs by the
Pentagon will be submitted in time for its recommendations to be
reflected in the 2012 budget.

Few
people, least of all advocates of an active, nonvintage bomber fleet,
expect exciting news. Service-centric politics, a joint-service
construct under which ground forces heavily influence the study and
pressure on procurement budgets (from overruns in the Joint Strike
Fighter program) will result in modest recommendations.

The
most likely include the endorsement of a long-range, nonnuclear
ballistic missile capability, although the time­scale and budget remain
uncertain. The conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) concept is a
favorite of Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the
Joint Chiefs.

Expect some backing but little
money for two other concepts: a joint-service, long-range cruise
missile, launched from Virginia-class submarines and B-52s, and the
Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N), which may be termed a
means of extending the range of a carrier air group. Both systems may
be linked to another joint-service study defining a future “air-sea
battle” and focused on matching China’s growing power in the Western
Pacific.

As for a future USAF bomber,
conventional wisdom—i.e., views acceptable to Cartwright and Defense
Secretary Robert Gates—is that the idea merits study, over and above
several dozen studies carried out in the past decade. In June, Lt. Gen.
Philip Breedlove, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans
and requirements, was quoted as saying the word “bomber” can no longer
be spoken in the Pentagon and requirements “trickling down from the
highest levels” call for a much smaller aircraft. Some sources believe
Cartwright is pushing the idea of a USAF variant of UCAV-N.

Air
Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Secretary Michael Donley
have not taken up the cause of a new bomber. The only four-star to
support the bomber has been Strategic Command leader Gen. Kevin
Chilton.

With little high-level support, bomber
advocates are doing what they have done before: changing the name to
“reconnaissance-strike.” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, in his last press
briefing before retirement, reiterated his view that intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and attack missions are no longer
separate. A penetrating ISR platform that cannot be armed makes little
sense.

Industry and service studies of a new
ISR and strike platform appear to be converging, driven by
technological developments, likely operational requirements and fiscal
realism.

Technologically, one factor that has
arisen in the past few years is the successful demonstration of
extremely low-observable (ELO) technology, with wideband, all-aspect
signature reductions of -40 to -50 dB. or more, under one or more
covert test programs. One step in this process may have been Boeing’s
Bird of Prey demonstrator, with a radar cross section (RCS) so small
that visual signatures became dominant. A consultant on that project
was stealth pioneer Denys Overholser, who has been involved with
projects envisioning RCS levels to -70 dB.—the size of a mosquito.

ELO
mandates an all-wing or blended-wing body and tailless, subsonic
configuration with buried engines. Advances in the computational
analysis of the complicated airflows over such shapes improve
aerodynamic 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 unrefueled
range of 5,600 nm. for UCAV-N, with new engines based on advanced
commercial cores.

The demonstration of reliable, long-endurance, autonomous operations
is important. Many bomber advocates agree that a new ISR/strike
aircraft should be optionally piloted. If it acquires a nuclear
mission, a crew is likely to be mandatory, and crewing would ease
mixed-use airspace concerns. On the other hand, the aircraft would be
inherently capable of operations beyond human endurance, and an
unmanned mode could avoid sending crews beyond the reach of
search-and-rescue assets.

Northrop Grumman
concepts for an advanced unmanned ISR/strike system list a range of
autonomous functions—threat awareness and avoidance, electronic and
lethal countermeasures, and cooperative defense. Onboard sensor fusion
and target recognition would be combined with the ability to match
imagery with terrain, passing high-grade target information to other
assets.

Bomber advocates are monitoring laser
weapons in the 100-kw.-class, considered adequate to kill an incoming
missile. Combined with ELO, this could give a bomber the ability to
survive against current and projected threats.

A
survivable aircraft with a large and diverse payload has advantages. It
can prosecute targets of uncertain location, and its range is a hedge
against antiaccess and area-denial strategies. Unlike the smaller UCAV,
it carries a mix of weapons.

The biggest
challenge to the bomber is price. Procurement cost in the $500-million
range is likely, equivalent to 4-5 JSFs, but carrying 4-5 times the
warload five times farther. The total investment in a force of 100 new
bombers would be about the same as the cost of replacing Trident
submarines. But, as enthusiasts suggest, the bombers would deliver
similar or greater longevity and more flexibility.
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