The U.S. Air Force requirement for a new bomber — part of the Long Range Strike family — could be as high as 200 aircraft as the bomber replaces aging B-1s and B-52s, according to defense analysts.
The problem with containing cost is how to take advantage of new technology without breaking the budget or generating so much political backlash that the bomber program is reduced or canceled. The B-2s ended up costing more than $2 billion each because the program was closed down so early.
The 2013 defense budget request sets funding for the Long Range Strike program at $300 million. Some Air Force planning estimates suggested a per unit cost target of $550 million per aircraft.
“We are going to make our best effort to not overdesign the aircraft,” says the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz. “We are going to deliver a design that provides the essential capability that we need — that will be improved over time, no doubt — but we are intent on ordering a capability that is not extravagant.”
Early Air Force estimates called for 80-100 aircraft. Analysts are saying that twice that number are needed to create a sustainable, operationally effective force that can continually be modified and upgraded as technology evolves.
“I would double that and look at something near 200 aircraft to provide a credible deterrent force and begin to look at replacement of the entire bomber force,” says Rebecca Grant, author of “The Case for a New Stealth Bomber,” a new white paper published by Washington Security Forum. “I think we see the need for more rather than less.”
“There’s also the aspect of credibility,” says Gen. (ret.) John Corley, former chief of Air Combat Command. “That is related to quantity. How credible is a force if you only have a handful of assets, many of which are in depot at any time or are beyond their service life?”
Grant downplays the advantages of an unmanned version of the bomber or an unmanned alternative. “The bomber is entirely different,” she says. “By the time you look at a payload of 40,000 lb., onboard fuel and the airframe itself, adding a crew and cockpit module aren’t that big. We want the value of a manned crew compartment. We are facing a new set of technology trade-offs.”
Some of those trade-offs include non-kinetic weaponry such as high-power microwave (HPM) weapons, lasers and electronic attack.
“There are things that could potentially be non-kinetic — like a cyber [surveillance or attack] contribution,” Corley says. “The new bomber needs to possess the ability to find a target, attack it and understand the effects of the attack. Those weapons could be standoff or free fall. It’s to support a concept of operations.” He calls for a large magazine, which means small or repeating weapons, long-range radar and the ability to judge the effects of electronic attacks.
The Air Force is developing the Champ cruise missile with an HPM warhead and a line of free-fall bombs that look like the Mk.82 family but carry HPM warheads. It also is working on an electronic attack version of the miniature air launched decoy (MALD-J) standoff missile.
A basic need for the bomber is more speed than the B-2 can provide. “Stealth needs a new partner in the bomber design and that is additional speed,” Grant says. “In thewe have a supersonic, stealthy fighter. I believe American industry can create a stealthy bomber with at least some supersonic dash speed.”
Another requirement is for better stealth, because air defenses continue to improve and proliferate.
“In the future we will see far more modern air defense missiles like the Russian-made SA-20 and SA-21, plus the ability to net and integrate them that we’ve not had to face,” Grant says. “We need something that is not a bomber in name only. We need something that can be optimized for around-the-clock strikes, can go anywhere and take any information it needs while working with others.”