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  • Ban The Bomber?
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:03 PM on Jun 25, 2010

    Obsessed with long-range planning for an Afghan war that can't persist in its current form for more than two years, senior Pentagon leadership is busily watering down plans for a new Air Force long-range strike platform.

    Lt Gen Philip Breedlove, USAF
    deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements, is quoted by Air Force Magazine today as saying that the word "bomber" can no longer be spoken in the halls of the Pentagon and that requirements "trickling down from the highest levels" call for an aircraft much smaller than the Next Generation Bomber that has been studied up to now.

    It's a safe bet that the "highest levels" include Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chief of the Joint Staff, who has opposed the development of the new bomber, and SecDef Robert Gates, who presumably dislikes anything that could draw USAF budgets and planning focus away from current programs.

    How many times have we been on this merry-go-round? While a small long-range strike aircraft is certainly feasible, the eternal question is exactly what size of airplane makes sense. Robert McNamara foisted the FB-111A on Strategic Air Command in the 1960s to bolster his own pet multi-service project, but it was far outlasted by the older and slower B-52.

    blog post photo

    In the early 2000s, USAF chief Gen John Jumper and USAF secretary Jim Roche conceived the FB-22. The result was (to steal a line from British writer and engineer Roy Braybrook) the kind of design that gives abortion a bad name. (I thought the version I did for Popular Science was much cooler.)

    blog post photo

    What's frustrating is that, in 2010, we have all the pieces we need, in hand or under development, to create a long-range strike aircraft that could be a remarkable "option generator" in future force and operational planning.

    The big one is Northrop Grumman's classified bomber prototype, which is aimed at demonstrating a combination of very low signatures and aerodynamic and propulsion efficiency. But there are other pieces available now, some courtesy of the B-2 program.

    blog post photo
    Jozef Gatial for DTI

    The B-2 already has a state-of-the-art Ku-band radar. Under development are high-bandwidth, stealth-compatible satcoms and the ability to carry a variety of modern weapons on a single rotary launcher.

    Those are three big things that you don't have to develop for the new bomber - as long as you're prepared to build a demi-B-2, not a fatter, slower fighter. Propulsion? A modern CFM56 core with a custom low-pressure system. Autonomy for an unmanned variant? Build on Global Hawk experience. Hard-target weapon? Unlike the Gates-Cartwright politically-correct non-bomber, a demi-B-2 can handle the already paid-for MOP.

    Also, with a bit of extra volume and some tailoring in the engines, a real bomber would be the first airborne platform able to carry a practical defensive laser. I hate the term "game-changer" but a light-speed weapon capable of defeating incoming missiles is exactly that, and unlike other things one could mention, actually would make maneuvering irrelevant.

    I'd also argue that a knee-jerk response to the effect that a large aircraft is unaffordable is based on a poor understanding of economics. Regardless of size, the jet will need a crew station, sensors, processors and defensive systems. In a long-range mission, the bigger aircraft will need less tanker support. Yes, the B-2 is expensive - but for reasons that are unconnected with its size.

    Tags: ar99, long-range-strike, ngb

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