The Must-Haves of the Next Strategic Nuclear Bomber

A B-2 Spirit bomber, from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., takes off for a mission during an air and space expeditionary force deployment at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis

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A B-2 Spirit bomber, from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., takes off for a mission during an air and space expeditionary force deployment at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.

Air Force officials opened up — just a bit — about at the thinking that’s informing the design process.

Almost nothing is known about the new bomber in development, the B-21 Raider, the most important Air Force project of the new century. But it will differ from previous bombers in one critical feature: rapid upgradability, according to Air Force Gen. Tim Ray, who leads the service’s Global Strike Command. In essence, there will be no single bomber but an ever-evolving platform that will change as technology and circumstances change as well.

So the B-21 will be modifiable in four key areas: sensors, communications, electromagnetic signature, and defensive capability, Ray said during the recent Air Force Association conference, just outside of Washington, D.C.

That means the Air Force and prime contractor on the project, Northrop Grumman, need to build a plane that can exhibit a wide variety of attributes depending on the mission and even the current state of technology. That will require changes in the way that the service acquires technology. Said Ray, “all of these things are moving much faster than our acquisition approach.” Another change: the Air Force is planning upfront to spend more to acquire and keep the intellectual property it needs as part of the program, particularly in information technology. “I’m not interested in letting intellectual property sit outside my family,” Ray said.

Air Force leaders see the future bomber as a critical component of nuclear deterrence but deterrence has changed a lot from the height of the Cold War when the government saw the three legs of the nuclear triad—ICBMs, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and bombers—as sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear war.

Related: Pentagon’s Next Bomber Will Be Built To Upgrade

Both the Russians and the Chinese have developed new capabilities, including better radar, cyber, and electronic warfare tactics and longer-range missiles, that will make it harder for U.S. aircraft to penetrate enemy defenses.

Additionally, emerging technologies like quantum radar threaten to scuttle conventional advantages that the United States has enjoyed for years, such as stealth. That means that designing new craft with no rounded edges to defeat conventional aircraft won’t yield as much return on investment as it has in the past.

It’s a problem that the Air Force has only begun to wrap its arms around. Gen. James Holmes of Air Combat Command was asked about the future effects of quantum radar on next-generation craft design.

“I have a quantum physicist in the family, my daughter, so I understand what she’s able to patiently explain to me… we’re trying figure out what the problems are and where the threats are.”

Right now, the design strategy is: increase the versatility of all the aircraft that might be tasked with penetrating enemy air defenses, according to Gen. Stephen Wilson, the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff. That means making strategic bombers that can also carry conventional weapons. Some have argued that F-35 should also be armed with long-range standoff nuclear cruise missiles (though this is not the current policy.) The F-35 is compatible with the B61-12 bomb. Next-generation electronic warfare effects and long-range sensing, of the sort that give the F-35 its core value, would also factor into the mix.

The future bomber will have to be well-integrated with the rest of the military’s jets, drones, ships, and satellites, all of that within a massive data-sharing networking. Air Force officials talk repeatedly about the need to create a massive nervous system of communication to defeat enemy electronic warfare defenses across the domains of sea, air, land, space, and information. But those lofty plans for massive information sharing among heterogeneous platforms look distant against today’s low-bandwidth secure communications (the commonly used Link 16 secure data link generally sends data at just 115.2 kilobits per second.) And while the Air Force’s next-generation aircraft will feature more modern communication gear, they will still need to be able to link to older aircraft.

Defense One asked Holmes about bridging the gap between today’s encrypted communications gear and the ones he wants to see on future aircraft.

“We think there’s three core capabilities that we have to pursue as we transition to a multi-domain capability against peer adversaries. One is multi-domain awareness,” meaning a near-perfect understanding of how every satellite, ground or sea vehicle or cyber operator is affecting the mission and how vulnerable each of them is, Holmes said. “We’re moving from a world where air combat command presented a threat to your air sensors primarily and only your air sensors to thinking about how you use space sensors, how you use air sensors, publicly available information, and how do we sort through all of the information that’s out there to give us multi-domain” awareness.

The next one, he said, is advanced battle management, meaning how do you take all of the information about the objects on the field, across the domains, and construct a strategy of attack. “The third part is agile, resilient [communications]: How do we make sure that we can link that multi-domain info with advanced battle management?”

When communication between these nodes fails because of the way the enemy is using cyber or electronic warfare, the fourth component will be “how do we teach our people to take the information that they have to make a decision and act and drive an [operations tempo] that forces the enemy to keep up with you.”

Read that to mean: no matter how advanced the next bomber is, and how smart the aircraft flying alongside it are, there will be moments when communication is incredibly sparse. All of the platforms, and the operators using them, will have to use rare moments of clarity and data sharing to maximum effect.

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