For years, the Long Range Strike Bomber project has been shrouded in secrecy, likely at Area 51, the Air Force’s top-secret proving ground deep in the Nevada desert. Service leaders say little beyond that they plan to buy 80 and 100 aircraft for about $550 million each, and will award a contract “soon” to either Northrop Grumman or a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team — perhaps at this week’s Air Force Association convention just outside Washington, D.C.
But it’s becoming clear that this bomber will do a lot more than drop bombs. More than just a first-strike weapon, it is expected to be a centerpiece of future U.S. warfare.
“We now have the possibility of adding sensors and processing power at a fraction of what it used to cost,” said David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who was the principal attack planner for the 1991 air campaign against Iraq and is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “What it means is that what we’ve traditionally labeled as bombers can now play a much greater role than they ever did in the past.”
Deptula doesn’t even call the new plane a bomber. He prefers “long-range sensor shooter,” a name that he says encapsulates the different missions it will fly.
First and foremost, the new aircraft — some have dubbed it the B-3 — will be a stealthy bomb truck built to carry tons of munitions into contested airspace. (What is “contested airspace”? An area guarded by powerful radars and surface-to-air missiles that could easily shoot down today’s non-stealthy B-1 and B-52 bombers. Where does this type of airspace exist? China, Russia and likely Iran.) But that’s just the beginning.
Over the past decade-plus of flying counterinsurgency missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force has learned how to give an ordinary bomber some intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities as well.
Targeting pods bearing high-power cameras have been installed on B-1 and B-52 bombers, breathing new life into those seasoned airframes. Today, the B-1 is used regularly to strike ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Since it can carry lots of bombs and fly for a long time, it can hang out above the battlefield and strike targets as they pop up.
The stealthy new bomber is meant to be able to do the same thing — in well-defended airspace. Like the B-2 bomber and the F-22 and F-35 fighters, the new aircraft will have its antennas embedded in its skin.
Some of those antennas are expected to be for powerful radars, allowing the aircrew to get detailed pictures of the ground and sky around them. Other antennae will sweep the electromagnetic spectrum for other clues about the enemy’s forces. (They may also allow the crew to to jam enemy equipment.) Taken as a whole, the sensor suite embedded in the aircraft’s skin will allow the aircraft to vacuum up information about the battlespace.
Moreover, the major advances in computer processing power in the decades since the Air Force’s existing bombers were designed will allow the new aircraft to crunch sensor data by itself instead of having to send to down to intelligence centers on the ground.
This airborne processing and sharing of data between planes — Deptula calls it the “combat cloud” — will give military commanders and war planners a leg up on the enemy.
“I’m trying to get folks to recognize that the speed of information, advances in stealth, precision, new sensors and technologies permit us to move beyond designing aircraft with segregated missions like technology forced us to do in the past,” Deptula said.
One of the new missions that this combat cloud enables is battle management inside well-defended airspace.
Today’s battle-management aircraft, such as the E-3 AWACS or E-8 JSTARS, have massive radars and rigid protruding antennas that light up enemy radar screens like a Christmas tree. But the same stealthiness that allows the new bomber to slip undetected into contested airspace will allow it to act as a quarterback for other forces once it gets there.
Gathering and crunching data as it goes, the bomber will use its high-bandwidth communications to send information and even directions to satellites, other aircraft, and even ground forces. It could steer other aircraft around hidden SAM batteries, for example, or pass target instructions as lat/long data or even video.
Its powerful radar, when combined with long-range missiles, could give the bomber another new role: interceptor, a role traditionally given to smaller, more maneuverable fighter jets.
Some have argued that the new bomber should be able to shoot down aircraft, something today’s bombers cannot do, in order to give its aircrew an extra layer of protection.
“This has not been a significant hindrance to U.S. air campaigns waged over the past two decades against opponents with limited air defense resources,” airpower analyst John Stillion wrote in a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment report earlier this year. “Nevertheless, they would face significant operational limitations if called upon to attack targets guarded by a capable, competent enemy fighter fleet that lay beyond the effective combat radius of modern fighter aircraft.”
The latest air-to-air missile can shoot down other planes from 100 miles away, potentially allowing the bomber to shoot down enemy fighters before they’re even seen — although such missiles have rarely been used for beyond-visual-range combat.
Nukes, Drones, and Lasers
When the first of the new bombers roll off the production line sometime in the next decade, they will not immediately be equipped to carry nuclear weapons — but they will eventually. In August, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, revealed that the new aircraft would someday replace the B-1 and B-52. The B-2 stealth bomber and the B-52 are the only Air Force bombers currently configured to drop nukes. (The B-1 used to carry them, but only drops conventional bombs now.)
Another down-the-road improvement will be the ability to fly the aircraft by remote control. Top Air Force leaders have said they want an “optionally manned” plane. While some see the military eventually shifting to an all-drone fighter fleet, it’s unlikely that policy makers will allow a plane armed with nuclear weapons to fly without a pilot.
Lastly, it is conceivable that the bomber will eventually get a laser or microwave weapon. The Navy is experimenting with lasers to defend ships. Technological advancements have made laser weapons smaller and cheaper to use.
And that’s just what we can foresee today. Upgradability — the Pentagon calls it “modularity” — is written into the bomber’s specifications. The bidders were required to make it easy to add the scores of upgrades expected over the bomber’s multi-decade life.