My DTI bomber story is online here, with some comments, but I thought I would bring the topic into the Ares mainstream with a few notes that ended up on the cutting-room floor, plus a couple of observations.The first observation is that we have many of the pieces of a credible new bomber at a high technology readiness level, or getting there under current programs. The B-2 is getting a new radar, wideband two-way stealth-compatible satcoms, and a stores management system that can carry diverse weapons on a single rotary launcher.
There is at least one development program in the black world which is driving towards high aerodynamic and propulsive efficiency combined with a new level of stealth.
The demonstration of reliable, long-endurance autonomous operations (by systems such as Global Hawk) is also important. Many bomber advocates agree that a new ISR/strike aircraft - most agree with just retired Lt Gen Dave Deptula that the roles are inseparable - should be optionally piloted.
If it does acquire a nuclear mission (an unnecessary complication, some would argue) a crew is likely to be mandatory, and crewing would ease international and mixed-use airspace concerns. On the other hand, the aircraft would be inherently capable of operations beyond reasonable human endurance, and an unmanned mode could avoid sending crews beyond the reach of combat search and rescue assets.
Northrop Grumman concepts for an advanced unmanned ISR/strike system list a range of autonomous functions, including threat awareness and avoidance, electronic and lethal countermeasures and cooperative defense.
Bomber advocates are seriously excited about lasers (which Graham Warwick covers in DTI). If lasers do pan out for airborne applications, it is almost certain that a system to defend a large aircraft from missile attack will be feasible quite a long time before technology reaches the point where an offensive system fits on a fighter.
Operationally, a highly-survivable aircraft carrying a large and diverse payload has several advantages. Unlike a missile, it can prosecute targets of uncertain location (such as SAM systems or ballistic missile launchers). Its range is a hedge against anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) strategies such as China's development of precision-guided medium range ballistic missiles, which threaten both land bases and carriers.
Unlike the smaller UCAV, it can carry a mix of weapons ranging from heavy hard-target munitions to large numbers of Small Diameter Bombs - the better to saturate short-range gun-missile defenses around high value targets.
So why is it not being done? One big reason is that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the current vice chief of the Joint Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, are not at all enthusiastic and have stalled the "2018 bomber" plan that was in the works a few years ago. This message has been received by some senior USAF people, who have also talked the idea down. In the current environment it takes a lot of nerve to advocate for a very expensive, high-end-warfare Air Force system.
So it will be interesting next week to see what the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has to say about long-range strike as part of its "strategy for the long haul" series of papers. With luck, it will raise the level of the debate. With more luck, as Gates and Cartwright move on and it becomes PC again to think of airplanes other than plastic powered sailplanes with cameras, a true Bomber Mafia will form - and we'll get to move beyond endless studies into the realm of hardware.