by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Defense Department’s proposed 2012 budget represented a surprising bonanza for warplanes. Despite a flattening topline — $670 billion, compared to more than $700 billion for 2011 — design and production of military aircraft remains strong. In the coming year, the Pentagon wants to purchase, at a cost of $27 billion, around 530 manned and unmanned aircraft, while also accelerating design work on a new carrier-launched naval drone and a new manned stealth bomber for the Air Force.
Formal announcement of the new bomber — almost certain to be designated “B-3” — is perhaps the most significant development for U.S. air power in many years. But it’s possible the bomber’s not really new at all — at least not in its components. The Pentagon’s ambitious schedule for the bomber, combined with the growing pressure on the military budget, mean the bomber designers will likely rely on technologies developed in secret in recent years inside the Air Force’s $30-billion-per year “black” world.
The Air Force’s roughly 160 existing B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers give Washington a unique advantage over rivals. Though China and Russia also possess heavy bombers, theirs are less numerous and far less sophisticated. Bombers allow the U.S. to attack targets at extremely long range. That’s a capability that’s particularly useful for operations in the Pacific region, where the U.S. maintains a small number of widely-separated bases arrayed against China and North Korea.
Today’s bomber fleet won’t last forever. Even the youngest B-2 is now around 15 years old; B-52s average 50 years in age. More to the point, only the 20 stealthy B-2s are suited for attacks against the most heavily-defended targets. The new B-3 “must be able to penetrate the increasingly dense anti-access/area denial environments developing around the world,” the Air Force explained.
Marilyn Thomas, a civilian budgeteer for the Air Force, said the government would purchase between 80 and 100 B-3s. The Air Force wants the first squadron ready for combat in the early 2020s.
To achieve this goal, the Pentagon realizes it must avoid the endlessly escalating cost and delay traditionally associated with new combat aircraft programs. Just two years ago. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled, on cost grounds, a previous attempt to build a new bomber. The current bomber’s development budget totals just $3.7 billion for the next five years, though the rate of spending will surely accelerate past 2016.
In any event, the Air Force wants its new bombers cheaply and quickly.
The new bomber initiative differs from the one canceled in 2009 in that it relies more heavily on existing technology, according to Air Force Major General Alfred Flowers, a senior budget official. “I think we’ve learned a lot from the last year of leveraging the technologies that’s out there in the studies that we’ve done.”
“We are relying on mature technologies so that we can produce an affordable bomber,” Thomas added.
There’s just one problem. According to longtime aviation reporter Bill Sweetman, there are no unclassified “mature” technologies that will lend the B-3 the levels of stealth it will need to survive the most modern air defenses. Sweetman doesn’t doubt those technologies exist. They’re simply classified.
The basic technologies for the new B-3 have been developed in secrecy over the last decade or so, Sweetman contends. Most significantly, in 2008 the Air Force apparently awarded Northrop Grumman a secret, $2-billion, sole-source contract to build a stealthy bomber demonstrator, perhaps modeled on the company’s X-47 — a carrier-capable surveillance and attack drone for the Navy that had its first flight this month. (The X-47 also benefited from the 2012 budget, receiving an extra $100 million to accelerate its testing.)
Several admissions by the Air Force underscore the new bomber’s possible relationship to the secret Northrop demonstrator. For one, the Air Force has said that it might not run an open competition for the bomber design, implying that a lead contractor and basic design have already both been chosen. Moreover, the B-3 will belong to what Flowers called an “optionally manned” “family of systems” emphasizing surveillance and communications capability. In short, the B-3 could have a lot in common with the X-47.
Even if the B-3-X-47 connection is not as strong as Sweetman believes, there are plenty of other hints that a new bomber has long been taking shape in secrecy. After several sightings by amateur plane-spotters, in 2009 the Air Force admitted it possessed a new, stealthy surveillance drone designated the RQ-170 Sentinel (pictured). Around the same time, there were hints that other secret stealth drones were in development or even operational.
To say nothing of non-secret drones. By late 2010, the Pentagon was testing no fewer than three radar-evading robot aircraft at facilities in California. Besides the X-47, these included the X-45 from Boeing and General Atomics’ Avenger, a stealthy development of the MQ-9 Reaper. The proliferation of survivable, high-performance U.S. drone designs, both classified and unclassified, likely indicates the direction the Pentagon is taking — or has already taken — with the B-3.