A Joint Publication of Iris Independent Research and the Lexington Institute
America has counted on bombers for tough missions for decades, but the bomber fleet will struggle to do its job as a capability void opens after 2015.
Talk of a new bomber has come in fits and starts since the Pentagon reached the decision to curtail the B-2 program over fifteen years ago. However, new threat assessments and the relative decline of older systems have made a new program urgent. According to General John D. W. Corley, Commander, Air Combat Command, direct attack of mobile or moving targets will grow difficult after 2015 and the new threat environment will be at full flush by 2020. The fleet of 20 B-2 bombers is just too small for persistent attacks in heavily defended airspace, and the B-1s and B-52s are not survivable there.
In February 2006, the Department of Defense called for a new long-range bomber to be fielded by 2018. Since then, there have been signs of activity, but questions linger. Is the Air Force ready to settle on requirements for a new bomber? Can industry partners really produce a bomber that fast?
The Air Force has set clear top-level criteria for the new bomber. It will have a combat radius of between 2000 and 3000 miles, high subsonic speed, improved survivability, and a whole new approach to the battlespace information architecture.
Despite the dark threat forecast, there is a silver lining in the form of increased technology maturity which has grown out of the stealth fighter and unmanned vehicle programs. As the paper discusses, early stealth programs like the F-117 and B-2 assumed considerable risk to pioneer new technologies. The B-2 was an example of a major weapons program explicitly designed to mature critical technologies. The F-22 closed many gaps, but still took on the challenges of supercruise, better maintainability and more integrated avionics. By the time of the Joint Strike Fighter downselect in 2001, the art of stealth had matured to the point where customers deliberately set requirements so as to control risk and cost.
Most technologies for the 2018 bomber are already closer to the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 7 than for any previous stealth aircraft program. Old obstacles such as the integration of antennae, improved maintenance, and the best in lean manufacturing have largely been mastered. Focused program management in government and industry can drive forward technology maturation in critical areas. Four decades of investment in research and development of stealth combat aircraft since the 1970s are about to pay off in rapid fielding of a vital new system.
This report grew out of working group sessions held to discuss bomber concepts and technology readiness. Members of the group included General John Jumper, USAF, Ret., General William Hartzog, USA, Ret., General Gregory S. Martin, USAF, Ret., Admiral John B. Nathman, USN, Ret., Lieutenant General Gordon Fornell, USAF, Ret., Lieutenant General Lansford Trapp, USAF, Ret., Major General Don Sheppard, ANG, Ret., and Major General Rick Lewis, USAF, Ret. The author gratefully acknowledges their insights and observations, while remaining responsible for all conclusions wise or wayward.
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