Countries maintain the strategic triad formed by land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) stored in silos containing one or many nuclear warheads, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and land-based long-range strategic bombers that carry gravity bombs of different kinds, but also long-range cruise missiles. The triad gives the commander in chief the possibility to use different types of weapons for the appropriate strike: ICBMs allow for a long-range strike launched from a controlled or friendly environment. SLBMs, launched from submarines, allow for a greater chance of survival from a first strike, giving the commander a second-strike capability. Strategic bombers have greater flexibility in their deployment and weaponry.
The United States maintains an arsenal of about 1,650 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and Strategic Bombers and some 180 tactical nuclear weapons at bomber bases in five European countries.
The Trump administration, as outlined in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released on Feb. 2, 2018, intends to continue the modernization plan laid out by the Obama administration, and also develop several new nuclear weapons capabilities that will add to the price tag for nuclear forces, including the near-term development of a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the longer-term development of new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Pentagon has planned to modernize all three “legs” of the U.S. nuclear triad – long-range bombers, subs and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The B-2 strategic bomber, a relatively new system, is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber. The Air Force is also planning a new strategic bomber, the B-21, and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
Northrop Grumman had won its bid to be the builder of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB), the Air Force’s replacement for its aging B-52 and B-1 bomber fleets. The initial $21 billion contract could end up bringing Northrop $80 billion over the next decade. The Air Force plans to procure 100 of the bombers, which will be the backbone of America’s strategic strike and deterrence capabilities.
“Building this bomber is a strategic investment in the next 50 years, and represents our aggressive commitment to a strong and balanced force,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in pre-announcement remarks at the Pentagon. “It demonstrates our commitment to our allies and our determination to potential adversaries, making it crystal clear that the United States will continue to retain the ability to project power throughout the globe long into the future.”
USAF tests a B-52 Stratofortress and CRL weapons system upgrade
The US Air Force (USAF) has tested an upgrade to the B-52 Stratofortress and the Conventional Rotary Launcher (CRL) to improve the lethality of B-52 in a combat environment. The upgrade was carried out to enhance mission flexibility by addressing limitations of the CRL, a weapons system designed for the bomber with an ability to carry a variety of munitions. Despite providing greater mission flexibility, the CRL can supply power to only four munitions at a time. As a result of the revamp, the number of weapons that can be powered at a time has been doubled.
The move is expected to result in reduced risk in combat environments and an increase in the number of weapons in the theatre of operations. The upgrade will also lower the number of aircraft needed for missions.
49th Test and Evaluation Squadron unit project officer major Jason McCargar said: “The Conventional Rotary Launcher has a high power draw, so an aircrew could only power up four munitions at a time without risking blowing circuit breakers in mid-flight. With this upgrade, it can now have eight ready at once.” According to 307th Maintenance Squadron aircraft armament superintendent senior master sergeant Michael Pierce, the ability to carry a full power load to all munitions on the CRL is likely to make the jet more lethal in combat.
Pierce said: “Now, a B-52 going into a war zone has the ability to put 20 munitions on a target area very quickly. Before, they would have to drop some of their munitions, power up the CRL again and then make another pass.” Furthermore, the modified CRL has the ability to carry greater payloads of specific kinds of munitions. During testing, eight AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missiles were loaded on the CRL. The USAF plans to upgrade the remaining CRLs in its inventory to the specifications of the test launcher.
Capabilities of LRS-B, now the B-21 Raider
The War Zone has received documentation that can put speculation to rest over two of the aircraft’s most prominent features. The document clearly states that the LRS-B will indeed be optionally manned as a core requirement.
The requirement for unmanned operations is reiterated again by a directive letter from the Secretary of Defense that is also included in the FOIA documents. It reads: “I direct the Air Force to develop an acquisition program that delivers a survivable long range penetrating bomber capable of manned and unmanned operations where range, payload, and survivability are balanced with production cost to provide an…”
The LRS-B, now the B-21 Raider, will be much more than a bomber. Beyond its deep strike role, the B-21 will be a multi-functional intelligence gathering and networking platform. And due to what is very likely to be its high operating altitude, its ability to execute non-kinetic functions will probably become as important as anything else.
A high-flying optionally manned B-21, which will be equipped with powerful sensors, including high fidelity and long-range radar systems, advanced communications, and myriad electronic intelligence gathering capabilities, would be able to penetrate into an enemy’s anti-access “bubble” to garner information on their ground and sea movements.
A manned solution, like one based around a business jet platform or airliner, or even an unstealthy high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, would be relegated to standoff surveillance duties which may keep their sensors out of the effective range of their target area altogether.
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. 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.
US Airforce officers see the future aircraft as an important element of its multi-domain capability against peer adversaries. It would be well-integrated with the rest of the military’s jets, drones, ships, and satellites, all of that within a massive data-sharing networking. This would enable multidomain awareness through collaboration of air and space sensors, feeding it into battle management to develop strategy an communicating it to other nodes and together thwart enemy’s cyber or electronic warfare efforts.