A B-52 and a B-2 — America’s oldest and newest bombers, respectively. Air Force photo

Why America Wants a New Bomber

Because Iranian and Chinese defenses are improving and drones aren’t ready

The U.S. Air Force has struggled for years to develop a new long-range bomber to complement its existing fleet of B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers dating from the 1960s, ’80s and ’90s, respectively.

The rise of China as a regional power compelled the Air Force, in 2006, to begin design work on a radar-evading “stealth” bomber capable of striking heavily-defended targets within the Chinese heartland from secure American bases in the Pacific. But the basic design of the so-called “Next-Generation Bomber” grew increasingly complex and potentially expensive — reportedly billions of dollars per copy. In 2009, then-U.S. Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the Next-Generation Bomber.

But the Air Force revived its bomber effort under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The new “Long-Range Strike Bomber” would be slightly less sophisticated and therefore cheaper than the Next-Generation Bomber: just $550 million per copy for up to 100 copies, with production beginning in the early 2020s. The U.S. Congress approved the first $300 million in development funding in late 2011. The Pentagon has vowed to cancel the Long-Range Strike Bomber if the total projected program cost exceeds $55 billion. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman will compete for the contract, details of which are a closely guarded secret.

One man has played a central role in building the case for the new bomber. David Deptula retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general in 2010. In 36 years of service, he flew F-15 fighters, helped plan the air war over Afghanistan in 2001 — including long-range strikes by B-2 bombers — and later oversaw Pacific bomber operations. In a landmark 2004 exercise organized in part by Deptula, B-52s flying from the U.S. struck and sank a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship using “smart” guided weapons. In retirement, Deptula has continued advocating for bombers.

I asked Deptula about the need for the bomber, the risks to the program and the technologies that could be included.

B-1 bombers refuel during testing over Florida. Air Force photo

Why now? Why, during a period of defense cutbacks, is the Pentagon so determined to build a new bomber? What changed to make the bomber such a high priority?

Broadly speaking, nothing has changed; the need for a new bomber is not “new.” The 2001 [Quadrennial Defense Review] noted the challenges to American power projection that included: the potential for a surprise attack that would prevent U.S. forces from deploying to trouble spots in a timely manner; the dearth of viable U.S. bases within range of likely trouble spots in Asia; and the emergence of “anti-access” capabilities that could deny the U.S. access to overseas bases, airfields and ports.

Furthermore, some potential opponents have great strategic depth within which to hide mobile anti-access systems. To counter this, the 2001 QDR said we should develop and acquire “robust capabilities to conduct persistent surveillance, precision strike and maneuver at varying depths within denied areas” — what is this but a new stealth bomber?

The 2006 QDR restated these challenges to power projection and specifically called for the U.S. to “develop a new land-based, penetrating long-range strike capability to be fielded by 2018 while modernizing the current bomber force.” The 2010 QDR called for an expansion of the nation’s long-range strike capabilities, to include options for “fielding survivable, long-range surveillance and strike aircraft as part of a comprehensive, phased plan to modernize the bomber force.”

The January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance was consistent with [Department of Defense] logic going back 12 years, during which two presidents and three [secretaries of defense] have deemed a new bomber necessary. The guidance again noted the challenges that time, distance and anti-access threats represent to American power projection — certainly, the strategic environment has not become more benign since 2001. The guidance renewed the call for the development of a stealth bomber in order to overcome these challenges.

What changed in the guidance relative to the past QDRs is the acknowledgement that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. The realization that we actually achieved our national security objectives in Afghanistan by the end of 2001 is being realized. This creates a strategic opportunity to re-balance our military posture toward the Asia-Pacific region.

The economic and political importance of the Asia-Pacific region continues to increase. Obviously, in Asia distances are vast, secure U.S. bases are few and potential opponents have highly capable anti-access systems. Therefore, in order to have an effective military posture in this region, we need to re-balance our military portfolio as the guidance directs, towards long-range, survivable, highly responsive systems such as stealth bombers.

Arguably, the ongoing fiscal crisis and defense cutbacks make a new bomber more vital, not less so. The old ways of doing business — slowly building up overwhelming numbers of ground forces — wouldn’t work even in an unconstrained budget environment, as they can’t support the Pentagon’s new operational concepts like the Joint Operational Access Concept and AirSea Battle. If we simply reduce what we have while maintaining the relatively even balance between the [military] services, our ability to project power would be even less viable.

We can’t afford to sustain our power-projection capability in Asia using the “old” methods, so we must do so using new methods, such as the new stealth bomber.

Airmen prep two B-2s for missions over Libya in 2011. Air Force photo

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget recently stated that existing bombers are adequate for projected missions over the long term. Did that change? Or did the Defense Department have to convince OMB that current bombers aren’t adequate?

The OMB statement was actually something of an anomaly: OMB has no military competence and shouldn’t be attributed any. [The Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Air Force consistently indicated from 2006 to 2009 that the Air Force needed a new bomber, and then did so [again] from April 2009 through today.

DoD reasoning was that the B-1 and B-52 are aging and non-stealthy and the B-2, while stealthy, is only available in small numbers. Just a month after the April 2009 budget recommendation, Secretary Gates said he was considering making the next-generation bomber unmanned – and obviously he wouldn’t have mentioned a next-generation bomber if he thought existing bombers were adequate over the long term.

In 2010, both [Air Force] Secretary [Michael] Donley and [Air Force Chief of Staff] General [Norton] Schwartz stated that a new stealth bomber was required, and Secretary Gates said that the Air Force needed “a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber” that was optionally manned. He also said we needed to begin this project today “to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service.”

Clearly, Gates stopped the program in April 2009 not because there was no need for a bomber, but because he believed there was further need to review what kind of new bomber the Air Force needed. This is the genesis of the so-called “family of systems” (FoS) approach, in which the bomber will leverage off-board [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and survivability support to enhance operational effectiveness while minimizing initial functionality requirements, thereby reducing the cost and schedule/technical risk associated with reaching the target [Initial Operational Capability].

The FoS approach also incorporates other long-range strike assets, such as the Navy’s planned long-range, air-refuelable ISR-strike [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] and the Air Force’s planned long-range stand-off weapon (LRSOW), which will give the U.S. much needed “offense-in-depth” in the emerging global persistent surveillance-attack domain.

B-52s in training in North Dakota. Air Force photo

Why not just upgrade existing bombers to meet future threats? What will the new bomber do that old, upgraded bombers can’t?

The Air Force currently operates three types of bombers: the B-52H, the B-1B and the B-2A. Design of the B-52 began in the late 1940s and the last one was delivered in 1962. It has been upgraded many times and has excellent range and payload. However, no amount of updating can alter the fundamental characteristics of the aircraft — like its shape and resulting large radar signature — that make it relatively easy to detect and very vulnerable to air defenses of even modest sophistication.

So for decades, the Air Force has relied on the B-52 to launch long-range cruise missiles rather than risk penetrating air defenses. Cruise missiles are very useful against relatively soft targets in known locations, but their long flight times and limited ability to penetrate hard or deeply buried targets limits their utility against the increasing number of important mobile and hardened targets.

Current generation cruise missiles also lack the survivability characteristics required for effective use against heavily defended targets. And while the Air Force plans to develop a new stealthy long-range cruise missile to replace [existing missiles], these weapons will be expensive and thus used only in small numbers relative to the total number of aim points required for a major air campaign (nominally 30,000 to 40,000).

The B-1’s design dates from the 1970s and they were built in the late 1980s. They have also been modified many times over the past 25 years and are more survivable than the B-52s, but again their design characteristics place fundamental limits on how much upgraded sub-systems can extend their ability to penetrate advanced air defenses. Thus, B-52s will increasingly be used in the stand-off weapon-delivery role, and exclusively so in operations against well-defended adversaries.

The B-2 stealth bomber was developed in the 1980s and the last was delivered in the late 1990s. They were designed to penetrate advanced air-defense systems and are the only Air Force bombers capable of survivably delivering large weapons — or large numbers of smaller weapons — in a non-permissive air environment.

However, the Air Force has only 20 B-2s, roughly one-fifth of what’s generally regarded as the minimum-required stealth bomber force for major air campaigns in either East Asia or Southwest Asia – and remember, the new defense strategy calls for global strike forces capable of conducting two such campaigns concurrently. As our adversaries adapt to known U.S. military strengths by acquiring more advanced air defenses, mobile systems or hardening important targets the capacity of the B-2 fleet will fall ever further behind the demand for its capabilities.

In other words, the new bomber will restore a balance between Air Force bomber capabilities, capacities and demands.

A Northrop Grumman patent for a new bomber design. Northrop Grumman art

If you had to guess, what do you think the new bomber will look like and be capable of? Are we talking about a cheaper B-2?

As you know, the president’s new strategic guidance specifically calls for a new stealthy penetrating bomber, and the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program is fully funded in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. And while the program is classified, the information the Air Force has released about the program, combined with a general sense of current aerospace industry capabilities, indicates the new bomber will be both less expensive and more capable than its predecessor.

Now, this isn’t to diminish the capabilities of the B-2. It remains — and will remain until the new bomber is fielded in the mid-2020s — the most powerful single conventional weapon system in the U.S. inventory, and will play an essential role in U.S. power projection strategy for at least the next two decades.

That said, the B-2 is an approximately 30-year old design and has been in service for over 15 years. During that time, and largely because of the trailblazing B-2, industry has made significant advances in stealth technology — both in terms of radar signature reduction and efficient manufacturing and maintenance of “low-observable” features — and equally giant leaps in a number of other key areas that will positively impact LRS-B capability and cost-effectiveness.

Since the advent of the B-2, industry has made its most striking and revolutionary technological leaps within the unmanned aircraft domain. The Air Force has acknowledged that LRS-B will be an optionally-manned system, meaning it will capable of both manned and unmanned operations.

With respect to the latter, we aren’t talking about remotely-piloted operations like one sees with the Predator-series UAVs. Rather, if the Air Force fully leverages emerging programs and technologies — its own and the Navy’s — LRS-B will become the most advanced UAV in history, carrying with it profound implications for U.S. power-projection capabilities.

Two UAV sub-domains stand out. The first is system autonomy, which can be further subdivided into the categories of autonomous flight management and autonomous mission management. The most advanced UAVs in operation today, such as the Air Force’s Global Hawk, don’t require a “pilot” in the traditional sense because they literally fly themselves and perform core mission functions, e.g., sensor employment, autonomously. Give them a mission plan and they can execute it start-to-finish without human intervention. Exceptions occur when real-time conditions call for a change in the mission plan, in which case human operators in a ground station (which houses the vast majority of the mission management software) upload new plans to the aircraft.

Future UAVs won’t only fly themselves and perform preplanned missions autonomously, they will also possess advanced on-board mission management software enabling them to perform inherently dynamic mission functions — such as routing through mobile air defenses — autonomously and in real-time. Human operators will always remain “on the loop” for critical battle management-related decision-making — not least the decision to attack — but the UAV and its on-board software will increasingly assume a majority of the core mission execution responsibilities currently handled by pilots, both on-board and in manpower-intensive ground station.

Emerging mission management technology will also permit large numbers of UAVs, even dissimilar aircraft types, to be controlled by very small numbers of human operators, thus enabling a dramatic up-scaling of UAV operations without an intolerable growth in the mission control footprint. For example, I know that in the advanced development part of the Navy’s [Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration armed drone] program, engineers are demonstrating prototype software that allows three to five mission operators to manage a mixed force of over 40 UCAS and [Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance drone] aircraft simultaneously.

The second key UAV sub-domain, also spearheaded developmentally by the UCAS-D program, is autonomous aerial refueling. Beyond high survivability, ultra-long combat endurance is the most valuable attribute for future airborne power projection systems. In addition to penetrating advanced air defenses, future systems will need to stage operations from extended, “access-insensitive” distances on the periphery of a theater outside ballistic missile (and other threat) envelopes, and they will need to persist for long durations within defended airspace to find and kill mobile and re-locatable targets.

While today’s bomber aircrews can rotate sleep schedules to tolerate long transit times and overcome the distance challenge, no one sleeps upon entering enemy airspace, so combat endurance — the time spent within the operational area — is severely constrained by human endurance limitations. Generally speaking, a manned bomber is capable of one multi-hour penetration into enemy airspace, after which the aircrew must refuel and return to base. This is particularly true if the manned bomber is staging operations from distant bases and the aircrew is logging extended transit time during the mission.

UAVs are only limited by issues such as consumables (e.g., engine oil, weapons) reservoirs and the mean time between failure of flight or mission-critical systems. With aerial refueling, an LRS-B in unmanned mode will be capable of repeatedly cycling back to a loitering tanker and returning to operational station, accumulating 24 hours or more of on-station time during a single sortie compared to five hours or less for a manned bomber.

This five-fold (or greater) increase in combat endurance per sortie will enable the planned force of 80 to 100 LRS-Bs to hold an entire country the size of Iran at continuous persistent attack risk from secure bases (e.g., Diego Garcia) well outside anti-access threat range.

Originally published by The Diplomat.