September 1, 2006  

Searching for the next B-52

The Air Force owes its existence to the strategic bombing mission. The rise of American air power from obscurity to independence during the first half of the 20th century can be attributed mainly to the contention of aviators that long-range aircraft could leap beyond battling armies to strike the vital centers of enemy power. In the second half of the century, the strategic bombing mission became so intertwined with nuclear deterrence that the Air Force sometimes seemed to be the dominant player in military deliberations.

But for an organization that built its reputation on strategic bombing, the Air Force has a surprisingly uneven record of building bombers. In fact, it has been half a century since the service debuted its last fully successful heavy bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress. Efforts to field a replacement have all fared poorly. The B-70 was canceled in the 1960s. The B-1 was canceled in the 1970s and resurrected to mixed reviews in the 1980s. The B-2 was canceled in the 1990s.

This series of missteps has resulted in a bomber fleet that might charitably be described as diverse and aging. The good news is it is the only sizable fleet of long-range strike aircraft in the world, so by default it is the best. The bad news is the 173 heavy bombers in the fleet look unlikely to meet joint strike requirements in the years ahead, especially if adversaries begin acquiring improved fighters and surface-to-air missiles — not to mention directed-energy weapons.

So the Air Force has decided to try again. It wants to develop and build a next-generation manned bomber that can sustain the service to about 2035, when something truly different — unmanned, hypersonic or orbital — might become technologically feasible. Service leaders are careful not to sound as though they’ve ruled out any of these options in advance of a formal “analysis of alternatives,” which they say they hope to complete early next year. But they have. The plan for the next-generation bomber is to build some sort of penetrating, manned aircraft that can destroy hundreds of targets per day in hostile territory during a prolonged air campaign.

Because the Quadrennial Defense Review advanced the deadline for fielding such a system from 2025 to 2018, the new plane may be a refinement of the existing F-22 fighter or B-2 bomber. And because the trade-offs of payload, range, survivability and versatility are so complex, it may be a family of aircraft rather than a single type. But the bottom line is that the Air Force is thinking in a focused way about building a bomber for the first time in a generation, and that effort could produce one of the few new starts of a major weapons program during the remainder of the decade.


Building a new bomber may not seem like the logical move for a cash-strapped service fighting a multifront war against terrorists and insurgents. Air Force leaders are contemplating termination of both the next-generation E-10 surveillance aircraft and the highly regarded C-17 transport aircraft, systems that appear more relevant to the global war on terrorism than a new strike aircraft. Today’s enemies pose little threat to the survivability of existing bombers, but finding and engaging them is another matter.

However, even superficial examination of the existing bomber fleet reveals a decrepit force ill-suited to the challenges that may lie ahead. That fact became glaringly apparent when policymakers engaged in the QDR asked the services what capabilities they possessed for prompt global attacks on time-sensitive targets such as mobile missile launchers. It turned out that if “prompt” was defined as within an hour and the strike had to be reasonably discriminate (meaning non-nuclear), the cupboard was bare. This was not a congenial finding for an administration that has to think about pre-empting weapons of mass destruction on a daily basis.

Lacking near-term alternatives, the administration decided to arm sea-based ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The absence of an Air Force answer was embarrassing and highlighted the need to improve long-range strike capabilities. That doesn’t mean the next-generation bomber will be able to hit targets on the other side of the world in an hour — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley says that mission properly belongs to a specialized munition rather than an aircraft — but it does mean the Air Force needs to get serious about improving the speed and flexibility of its bomber fleet.

The most capable bomber in the fleet is the stealthy B-2 Spirit. Designed to maximize the survivability advantages afforded by low-observable technology, the B-2 is the only heavy bomber in the world that can safely transit hostile airspace before defenses have been suppressed. Equipped with 500-pound, satellite-guided bombs, a single B-2 can precisely target 80 aim points in a single sortie. However, the program was prematurely terminated at the end of the Cold War and, as a result, only 21 planes exist, 16 of which would be available for combat during a period of heightened alert. Despite upgrades to enhance the B-2’s versatility and reliability, Air Force leaders fear that the plane’s subsonic speed will limit its use in the future as adversaries field advanced defensive systems.

The 67 B-1 Lancers in the fleet were built during the Reagan administration to serve as interim bombers until the more survivable B-2 became available. Conceived in 1965 as a supersonic bearer of nuclear bombs, the B-1 was transitioned to conventional bombing missions when the Cold War ended. However, despite some low-observable features, the B-1 lacks the integrated stealth of a B-2, and its electronic countermeasures system has experienced chronic problems. These defects, combined with a low mission-capable rate early in its history, have made the B-1 a controversial plane even among Air Force leaders. Twenty-eight percent of the aircraft have been removed from active duty. The B-1 definitely is not their idea of what the service needs for future long-range strike missions.

The least capable bomber in the fleet is also the most admired: the B-52 Stratofortress. Developed in the early 1950s to be a high-flying nuclear bomber, it later became a low-altitude nuclear penetrator, then a standoff carrier of nuclear-armed cruise missiles and finally a conventional strike aircraft. More than 700 B-52s were built, of which 85 remain in the active force today, all of them “H” versions built in the Kennedy years. These planes have received dozens of upgrades to preserve their war-fighting value, from Global Positioning System receivers to defensive avionics to precision weapons. But with a radar cross-section 50 times bigger than that of the B-1, the Stratofortress is suitable only for operating in relatively benign airspace such as that above Afghanistan. The QDR recommended paring the number of B-52s in the force to 56.


It doesn’t take great expertise to see that this aging collection of Cold War aircraft isn’t sufficient to police the world. Fortunately, the Air Force can rely on shorter-range fighter-bombers such as the F-15E Strike Eagle for tactical strikes, and the joint force has other strike assets to call on from carrier-based aviation to submarine-launched cruise missiles. But there are credible scenarios in which only a long-range, penetrating strike aircraft can accomplish U.S. military objectives, and the number of these scenarios seems to be growing as threats proliferate and basing options shrink.

The Defense Department may not have built any bombers lately, but it certainly has produced its share of studies about what kind of bombers are needed. On average, one study of long-range strike requirements has appeared per fiscal quarter since the Cold War ended. The most important was the Air Force’s Bomber Roadmap released shortly after Operation Desert Storm, which set forth a plan for transitioning the heavy bomber fleet from a force focused on nuclear deterrence to one that could prosecute theater air campaigns using conventional weapons. The Clinton administration implemented this plan using two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies as the metric for determining how many bombers should be equipped with precision-guided munitions. It settled on 190 planes as the goal.

In its current study of long-range strike requirements, the department has separated “penetrating, persistent” global strike requirements from “prompt” global strike requirements, assigning lead responsibility for analyzing the former to the Air Force’s Air Combat Command and for analyzing the latter to the Air Force Space Command. Representatives of the Pentagon’s Program Analysis and Evaluation shop initially argued for combining all strike requirements in a single study, but the Air Force argued that trying to reconcile next-generation bombing needs with the unique requirement to hit time-sensitive targets anywhere in the world within an hour would be impractical. Although future bombers might be able to strike some urgent targets quickly, making that a requirement for the bombers would distort consideration of other performance features.

The two studies are, therefore, proceeding in parallel, with the Space Command effort likely to recommend a ballistic or orbital solution, while the Air Combat Command defines the performance goals of a more conventional bomber. As part of the bomber effort, three aircraft integrators have been asked to consider several next-generation options, trading off the value of manned vs. unmanned airframes, and supersonic vs. subsonic speeds. Few observers expect the Air Force to embrace a design that is unmanned or subsonic, although Moseley has raised the possibility of evolving an initially manned vehicle into one that is unmanned or “optionally manned,” depending on missions.

Air Force expectations for the next-generation bomber closely match the findings of the QDR, which stated in its final report that “joint air capabilities must be reoriented to favor, where appropriate, systems that have far greater range and persistence; larger and more flexible payloads for surveillance or strike; and the ability to penetrate and sustain operations in denied areas.” The report went on to note that the Air Force had set goals of increasing its long-range strike capabilities by 50 percent and of increasing the penetrating component of its long-range strike fleet by 500 percent. Both of these goals are supposed to be achieved by 2025.

Within this framework, the service has drafted an internal point paper identifying nine “desired capabilities” of future long-range strike systems — all of which apply to the next-generation bomber. First, strike systems must be responsive, meaning they must be able to strike remote targets quickly (“within hours to minutes”). Second, the systems must have sufficient range to reach anywhere in the world from U.S. territory or forward operating bases. Third, they must be able to carry a mixed load of modern munitions, including nuclear weapons when necessary. Fourth, the systems must be highly survivable in hostile airspace, a quality achieved through some combination of speed, stealth, standoff weaponry and self-defense features. Fifth, future long-range strike systems must be persistent, meaning they must be able to attack time-critical targets continuously over prolonged periods, regardless of weather or other operating conditions. Sixth, they must possess comprehensive situational awareness, implying advanced on-board sensors and processing, plus links to various off-board sources of information. Seventh, they must have “robust connectivity” to global military networks. Eighth, they must be able to operate autonomously. Finally, they must be flexible and adaptable, easily modified to meet emerging needs, which suggests design features such as modularity and open architectures.

It isn’t likely that all of these desired capabilities could be incorporated into a single aircraft design. Even with the most demanding prompt-strike requirements assigned to some other system, a plane that is fast but persistent, netted but autonomous, could prove to be fabulously expensive, especially given the progress prospective adversaries are making in fielding sophisticated air defenses. The challenge of satisfying so many performance parameters has convinced many observers that a family of planes will be required, rather than one basic airframe.

However, there is another approach, and it is probably the approach Air Force leaders favor. Applying the precepts of net-centric warfare, an array of imperfect systems can be integrated into a system of systems that meets all needs specified in Air Force requirements documents. For example, a strike variant of the stealthy F-22 fighter could provide assured survivability in hostile airspace, while persistence could be achieved by having a sufficient number of the planes linked to modern tankers so strike aircraft would be near targets of interest at all times. Such concepts make sense when the next-generation bomber is thought of as one component in an integrated joint-strike architecture, rather than as a system that must be able to do it all.


Whatever approach the Air Force ultimately embraces, the next-generation bomber is only one facet of a three-phase modernization plan for long-range strike capabilities that will not be completed until midcentury. The first phase of that plan calls for a variety of enhancements to the existing bomber fleet, such as digital data links and better precision weapons. This initiative, which is essentially a continuation of the efforts begun by the Bomber Roadmap in 1992, will cost the Air Force about $4.5 billion between 2006 and 2011. It is designed to resolve pressing deficiencies in the fleet, most notably a lack of situational awareness concerning threats and the difficulty of quickly retargeting weapons in response to changing tactical conditions.

The second phase of the modernization plan will unfold mainly in the next decade, when the Air Force hopes to develop and begin deploying its next-generation bomber using technologies that are already reasonably mature. Recognizing that overseas threats to the survivability of the fleet are growing at a time when mission demands on the force are likely to increase, too, the QDR advanced the date for initial operating capability of a next-generation long-range strike system to 2018 — seven years earlier than the previous plan and decades earlier than the fatigue life of existing bombers would have required. To meet this demanding deadline, the Air Force will have to complete its analysis of alternatives early next year and cut off development of technologies for the bomber in early 2009. It may also elect to conduct a virtual flyoff of competing designs using computer simulations, rather than building prototypes, to save time and money. About $1.6 billion is budgeted for this effort through 2011.

The final phase in the modernization plan does not begin until about 2035, when fundamental advances in new technology may enable the Air Force to begin implementing a radically different global-strike architecture. Nobody really knows what this architecture will look like — it may be space-based or robotic, using hypersonic propulsion concepts or directed-energy weapons, depending on how relevant technologies advance in the intervening period. About $275 million in basic research funding will be provided for Phase III activities from 2008 to 2011, with a strong bias in favor of systems that do not look like traditional manned bombers. Thus, it is possible that the next-generation bomber will be the last such plane the Air Force buys.

All of these plans could easily go awry. New overseas threats might accelerate or redirect the search for long-range strike options, while budgetary pressures might slow or preclude the start of new programs. If the Air Force has its way, however, the nation will buy a new bomber in the near future because the current fleet is simply too antiquated to meet the challenges of an era characterized by diverse dangers and networked warfare. Air Force leaders don’t doubt that other services have a contribution to make to the long-range strike mission, but they see the ability to carry out that mission as one of their service’s core competencies — a competency overdue for renewal by new technology.

Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.