Why does the Air Force need a new bomber? There are three parts to that answer, one geostrategic, one operational and one technological. Geostrategically, unless Mexico or Canada become major threats, the United States is a long way from virtually all likely zones of conflict. Access to overseas bases is becoming ever more challenging and even when such facilities are available, as was the case at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. aircraft often have to travel long distances. Operationally, while the ability to hold at risk adversaries’ forces and high value targets remain central to an effective deterrence strategy as well as to warfighting plans, the air defense environment globally is becoming more challenging. New capabilities are required if the Air Force is to be able to meet future strike requirements. Technologically, the U.S. bomber force is aging; the newest aircraft, the B-2, is already about 20 years old, and the venerable B-52 is more than 50. Not only are aging platforms increasingly at risk to modern air defenses but the cost of keeping such platforms flying is becoming prohibitive.
The Air Force needs a new, more capable strategic bomber. At the same time, it needs to husband its increasingly scarce resources. In order to achieve both goals, the Air Force has designed the program for a new bomber so as to ensure that it is affordable as well as capable, to minimize risk, and to leverage a range of emerging capabilities to enhance the new platform’s performance across a broad range of potential scenarios. Unlike past major acquisitions which sought to develop leap-ahead capabilities but enduring significant technological and cost risk, the plan for the new bomber is as much evolutionary as revolutionary. The Air Force plans to rely on mature technologies, taking advantage of what has been learned in areas such as stealth since the B-1 was developed. Any new design will undoubtedly exploit advances in such areas as internal sensors and computer-based diagnostics to manage aircraft availability and reduce life cycle costs.
The Air Force sees the new bomber program as really more of a “long-range strike family of systems.” This phrase means that the new aircraft will operate within a nested network of other capabilities such as off-board sensors, electronic warfare capabilities and new weapons systems. The current bomber force has seen its effectiveness dramatically increased through the capability to deliver precision ordnance that relies on coordinates provided by GPS satellites. Because the aircraft will not be expected — or designed — to operate as a standalone platform, it will not have to carry all the exquisite capabilities once considered essential for a strategic bomber.
A new strategic bomber program is critical also to the U.S. defense industrial base. With the termination of the C-17 program at some 220 aircraft, for the first time in 70 plus years the United States no longer is designing or producing a large body military aircraft. Programs such as the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and the P-8 antisubmarine warfare aircraft, while extremely capable of performing their specific missions, are derivatives of commercial aircraft. Designing, building and sustaining a large, complex combat air platform that is stealthy, able to operate in extremely hostile environments and conduct a range of missions ranging from deep penetration ISR to the delivery of nuclear weapons requires a skilled workforce and industrial capability that if not continually exercised will atrophy. If a new long-range strike family of systems is not pursued now within a very few years this nation will lose the critical capabilities to build such a platform. Moreover, the time it would take to recover the lost engineering and production arts involved could easily take decades.
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