Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Return of the "Next Generation" Bomber

To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, reports of the "next generation" bomber's demise were apparently exaggerated.

Only eight months after Defense Secretary Robert Gates halted development efforts for a new bomber, he announced that the Air Force's 2011 budget will likely include a request for you guessed it--an advanced bomber aircraft.

According to Mr. Gates, next year's proposed defense budget would provide about $1 billion for development of a new bomber, with increased funding in the years that follow.

“We are probably going to proceed with a long-range strike initiative coming out of the Quadrennial Defense Review and various other reviews going on,” Gates told troops in Kirkuk, Iraq. “We’re looking at a family of capabilities, both manned and unmanned.”

When he froze the program last April, Mr. Gates said he wanted the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review to take a look at bomber requirements before proceeding. The secretary's remarks suggests that the QDR--due early next year--will recommend development of a new, long-range strike aircraft, to counteract expected threats, and augment the Air Force's aging bomber fleet.

Secretary Gates was widely praised for his decision to halt the bomber program earlier this year. But in hindsight, his choice will do nothing more than delay a needed aircraft program. The strategic environment hasn't changed since last spring, and our squadrons of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s aren't getting any younger.

Given those realities, the logical choice was to continue development of long-range strike programs, with a goal of getting a new aircraft (manned or unmanned) on the ramp by the end of the next decade. Instead, Mr. Gates deferred to the QDR, letting that process decide the future of bomber development.

The result? An unnecessary, 18-month pause in the research and development process. Tack that on to the original timeline for delivery of the new bomber (2018), and it looks like ACC and Global Strike Command won't see a new strike platform until 2020 or 2021, at the earliest.

In an interview with this writer a few months ago, airpower analyst Dr. Rebecca Grant warned that there "are no substitutes" for aircraft cancelled by Gates, including the new bomber and the F-22 fighter. Belatedly, Secretary Gates has apparently reached the same conclusion, at least as far as the bomber program is concerned.

The "arrested development" of the new bomber has a parallel in recent Air Force history. In 1977, President Carter cancelled the B-1 program, in favor of other strategic systems then under development, including the B-2 stealth bomber. Shortly after his inauguration in 1980, President Reagan resurrected the B-1, and a modified version of the aircraft (the B-1B) entered operational service in 1986.

Twenty-five years later, there's no guarantee that President Obama (or his successor) will stay the course on the new bomber. Mr. Gates' announcement is a step in the right direction, but a lot can happen over the next decade. Keep your fingers crossed.


Ray said...

Out of curiosity, what would we want out of a next generation bomber that the B-2 doesn't already provide?

Or is it more just a matter of replacing aging airframes?

Ed Rasimus said...

This is almost as though Gates actively wants to screw up the fleet as badly as possible by minimizing existing and near-term capabilities while simultaneously creating a fantasy target for future Congressional budget dithering and as a strawman for the inevitable charges of cost-overruns, kickbacks and fraud.

The "bomber" mission has morphed into a surgical excission delivery requirement of small diameter stand-off weapons with no conceivable application of a classic bomber function that wouldn't be handled by short range ballistic or even cruise missiles.

Meanwhile the air superiority force is emasculated with a mere handful of Raptors, the tankers continue to age with nothing on the near horizon, the handful of B-2s seems a perfect candidate for a B-2B contract, and the daunted 2000+ buy of F-35s mocks us with the unreality of it all.

I initially thought Gates would be a voice of reason for defense in an otherwise Fantasy landscape of Obamatrons but am now convinced that he is the most dangerous tool in the drawer.

SMSgt Mac said...

Thanks for the head's up!

There will always be a need for platforms that can place big ordnance on target. The platform can be theoretically be plane or missile, but the driver for type is cost-effectiveness. As long as there are sufficient numbers of aimpoints that can only be serviced by big bombs (2k lb plus) at long distances from home, you will need the heavy bomber in numbers.
As an example of the need, unclassified sources indicate that of likely target elements/aimpoints to be targetted in NoKo, more than half of those needing more than a SDB applied would require weapons that can now only be carried by a bomber. As our potential adversaries continue burying their prize possessions deeper and deeper, the percentage of aimpoints requiring heavy (and heavier) weapons will continue to grow. The range/total payload/aimpoints-per-sortie combination is the only advantage of the bomber that cannot be overcome by other palatforms. The laws of physics must be obeyed.