Reflecting on this month's DTI story on the Next Generation Bomber project, it's clear that the biggest challenge to be faced if the USAF wants new bombers on the ramp by 2018 is economic rather than technological.
I make the case - and I didn't entirely pull the idea out of my own ear - that the only way to get there is, first of all, to have attainable goals for a "Block 10" version, using technology and even subsystems that are largely proven; second, to have a pretty good idea of what Blocks 20, 30 and 40 will look like; and third, to design with a relatively low production rate in mind.
It's worth remembering that the commercial industry doesn't build dozens of A380s or 747s every year, that Boeing has said that the 747 line was economical even when it was barely in two digits, and that the C-17 line is reasonably efficient at 15 jets per year.
The toolbox of 2018-ready technologies is also quite full, beginning with the stealth and aerodynamic design features of Northrop Grumman's X-47B Navy Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator, now nearing completion at Palmdale. It's not a baby B-2: it is much more efficient, its engine integration is simpler, but it offers the same advantage: stealth that is robust against emerging broadband threats. Many detailed stealth features (such as the treatment of doors and sensor and communications apertures) can build on JSF experience.
Assuming that we've been right about Northrop Grumman's blackworld demonstrator, it should not be a vastly difficult program, so much as a matter of demonstrating an efficient and stealthy configuration at or near full scale.
Where is the money going to come from, though? Again, the outline of the plan is not hard to discern. Black-budget demonstrator funds are being used to close risks (one can assume that Boeing and Lockheed Martin, at the same time, will be using independent R&D funds to test their design on the RCS range and in the wind tunnel) but the big money starts as the development of the Joint Strike Fighter winds down.
One interesting question: which of the USAF's three bombers does the NGB replace first? Today, the USAF finds itself in the same difficult position as the Royal Air Force in 1960: supporting three separate bomber types when it really has the numbers to support one.
In fact, not only is money the challenge for the NGB - it's also the pay-off, because if a single type can effectively replace the B-52 (which is old and not very survivable), the B-1B (somewhat of a maintenance hog) and the B-2 (a tiny fleet and hideously expensive to operate), it will save the USAF a boatload of operations and support money. That's also why flexibility and versatility are keys to NGB, and why a big weapon bay is more important than unrefueled global range.
What follows logically is that the NGB first replaces the most expensive bomber, the B-2. This also makes sense from an operational point of view, because stealth and survivability are what the B-2 brings to the bomber force. And while the critics will gnash their teeth and rage, the B-2 by that time will have served 20 years or more (even if the 2018 date is met) and nobody even notices when the Navy sends an 18-year-old Aegis cruiser to the breakers.
pic credit - Northrop Grumman