I attended a breakfast the other morning, and the featured speaker was USAF Gen. John Corley, chief of Air Combat Command. He talked about the next-generation bomber, and some of the challenges facing the Air Force as they push for a 2018 deadline. In order to fulfill the necessary technology, integration and manufacturing readiness levels by that date, Corley said, he doubted the first iteration of the aircraft could be unmanned.
I did a little research of my own regarding the next-gen bomber and discovered a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report issued March 7 dealing with precisely this topic. I thought readers might find some of the questions raised by the report to be interesting, particularly in light of Corley’s comments.
Although there’s no doubt the Air Force needs a new long-range strike platform in the coming years, there is debate over whether or not a brand new bomber can be delivered by the 2018 deadline. In order for Initial Operating Capability (IOC) to be achieved by that date, technologies for the bomber would have to be developed by 2009, with “useful prototype demonstrations” in 2011.
According to the Air Force in a white paper from 2007, the current fleet of long-range bombers should be able to fly into the 2030’s and 40’s. But platform structural viability is less of an issue than capability – are B-2’s, -52’s and -1’s suited to a medium- or high-threat environment? They are primarily stand-off platforms.
Corley said what the Air Force is looking for in a long-range, next-generation bomber is the ability to penetrate and persist in a hostile environment, something that would indicate an unmanned or “optionally manned” bomber. An optionally manned bomber has a seat for a pilot when one is needed, and is a more expensive option. Nuclear capability, which is one of the nine capabilities required by the Air Force, will add to the debate – are we really ready for an unmanned nuclear bomber?
One possibility for addressing the unmanned nuclear bomber debate would be to build two different airframes – one for unmanned conventional strike and a manned aircraft for both conventional and nuclear missions.
The Air Force plans to spend at least $1.6 billion through 2011 on the future bomber program, although industry analysts have estimated the cost could rise to $10 billion in development costs alone, according to the CRS report.
Whatever the solution, Corley is certainly behind it. He talked about a “capability void” facing the Air Force, starting in 2015 and hitting “full flush” in 2020, which is why “our chief is telling us ‘You’ve got to fill that void with a new bomber,’” Corley said.