September 18, 2015, by D.M. McCauley – With the integration of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter well underway, the U.S. Military has turned its eyes toward the next big avionic project: the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). With competing designs submitted from the defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp. and the one-two punch of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., the future of U.S. global strike capability has been set in motion. A small group of defense analysts were briefed at the beginning of this month, shedding needed light on the closely-guarded project.
Air Force officials have indicated that the bomber contract will likely be awarded in October, yet given the complexity and level of development already evident in the recently submitted designs, thorough evaluation may slow proceedings.
Two primary attributes have been prioritized in development: stealthiness and range. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Welsh highlighted the aircraft’s role in an early press briefing.
“It will give our country the ability to hold any target on earth at risk. It also gives us the ability to conduct extended air campaigns and provides operational flexibility across a wide range of military operations,” said General Welsh. “LRSB will be a long-range, air-refuelable, highly survivable aircraft with significant nuclear and conventional standoff and direct attack weapons payloads”
Rather than attempt to fill multiple roles, the Long Range Strike Bomber will be utilized as a very specific piece of a three-pronged joint-force approach. The F-35 will be the centerpiece of the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet, followed by the LRSB as a globally-reaching deterrent and flexible long-range strike platform. Both will be supported by the refuel and resupply focused KC-46 Pegasus. General Welsh emphasizes that developing and acquiring this family of systems will be “critical to our success in the coming years”. This marks an increased effort to steer away from the Air Force’s aging legacy fleet and ensure full operational capability in a rapidly shifting battlescape.
The Long Range Strike Bomber is planned to eventually succeed both the B-52 and B-1. The winner of the LRSB contract will be expected to initially produce between 80 and 100 of the next generation warplane. Both bomber designs reportedly feature electronic attack systems. Nuclear strike software will be included in early production models, but certification is not expected until two years after activation of the aircraft. Manned and unmanned variations of the aircraft are planned, with unmanned operations assessed to be possible within the next 10 years.
In an effort to cut costs and reduce the development cycle, both designs submitted propose utilizing existing aviation combat subsystems technology. All of this has to be accomplished on a budget of $550 million per plane, made possible only by reusing and borrowing systems and components from existing aircraft.
This next generation stealth bomber will utilize advancements in defensive technology. In contrast to the recent economic downturns and defense spending cuts among their European neighbors, Russia has made revolutionary advances in military detection technology. Reports have shown that new Russian and Chinese radar-detection systems are not fooled by the F-35’s stealth capability, exacerbated by the tail design necessitated as a fighter. Plans for the platform are ambitious, but initial impressions indicate a warplane that is jack of all trades but master of none. This is evidenced by reduced operational distance, maneuverability, payload, and defensive system capability.
Unlike the F-35, the B-2 and new stealth bomber are both capable of stealth in the Very High Frequency (VHF) band. This weakness in the F-35 is particularly worrisome because of an all-digital mobile radar system built and used by Russian Forces. The Chinese Navy utilizes similar detection technology on their warships.
To fill the slated role, this new bomber needs to avoid radar detection, signals systems, and even the naked eye. The Long Range Strike Bomber will accomplish this in a similar yet more advanced manner than the B-2. The plane’s boomerang-like shape is rendered more effective by embedding the engines within the main body. This angular design also maximizes the absorption and scattering of radar waves.
What can be surmised about the designs is that they will undoubtedly include enhanced networking capabilities and access to orbital and drone-based reconnaissance assets. The required specifications and known design elements of the LRSB indicate a distinct shift toward stealth innovation and specialization.
Despite plans for multi-role intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, it is unknown if any LRSB will be allocated stateside. According to Dr. Sara McGuire, Assistant Professor of Intelligence and National Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, “When a threat to homeland security is detected, aerial surveillance ends. The operation becomes a homeland defense air mission under Operation Noble Eagle.”
As the first U.S. stealth bomber designed and built in the information age, an enhanced suite of data and target collection systems should be expected.
About the Author: D.M. McCauley is a former U.S. Navy sailor who worked in Intel. After the service he has dedicated his time to writing and traveling with his significant other.
Photo credit: National Guard Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Mary-Dale Amison