Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III announced that 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. Northrop Grumman, which built the B-2, was competing against a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the contract.
Northrop’s proposal is “the best value for our nation,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a news conference at the Pentagon. Three main issues helped drive the government’s decision: Costs were given the same weight as payload and range for the competing designs, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.
“The Air Force has made the right decision for our nation’s security,” said Wes Bush, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Northrop Grumman. “As the company that developed and delivered the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, we look forward to providing the Air Force with a highly-capable and affordable next-generation Long-Range Strike Bomber.
Part of Strategic Triad Modernization
The announcement marks an important step in the Pentagon’s broader plan to modernize all three “legs” of the U.S. nuclear triad – long-range bombers, subs and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at $348 billion over 10 years, and others have said it could approach $1 trillion over 30 years.
“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.”
Current Fleet Ageing and Vulnerable
The Pentagon wants to replace its ageing fleet of about 160 Bombers, comprising of 1960s built B-52s, 1980s built B-1s, and 1990s-vintage B-2s.
These Bombers have also become vulnerable to sophisticated networked surface-to-air missile batteries produced by Russia and China, which could destroy ballistic missiles, early warning aircraft, tactical fighters, and even stealth bombers. The proliferation of surface-to-air missiles and long-range tactical missiles reduces the area where U.S. forces can operate with impunity.
“We are seeing levels of weapons development in other states that we have not seen since the mid-’80s, when we faced a near-peer military competitor in the Soviet Union,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said at a March 17 conference sponsored by McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse. Work said the Pentagon’s 2016 budget begins to “aggressively re-address some long-term modernization to stay ahead of our competitors and potential adversaries.
Broad Requirements of Bomber
The new warplanes must be able to fly long distances, penetrate even the heaviest defenses and destroy scores of hidden or mobile targets in a single bombing run.
This requires, Long Range Strike Bomber to be even stealthier than the B-2, should be armed with all the latest weaponry and carry plenty of fuel.
Northrop’s bomber will employ a family of secret, strike technologies including munitions; sensors needed to find targets; jamming capabilities to suppress enemy radar; and communications able to survive the electromagnetic pulses from nuclear detonations.
The first planes will be piloted and outfitted with conventional weapons, followed by a version that can carry nuclear arms. It would feature an open architecture for easy addition of new technologies as they arise.
A drone version may follow. In May 2009, testimony before Congress, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mentioned that the Pentagon is considering a pilotless aircraft for the next-generation bomber role.
The Air Force plans to procure 100 of the bombers, which will be the backbone of America’s strategic strike and deterrence capabilities.
The LRSB program’s specifications are aimed at keeping development costs under control by focusing on using only “mature” technologies, focusing on innovation in their application rather than going for moonshot-like new capabilities. This suggests that might not be hypersonic which not a fully matured technology as yet.
The Pentagon also wants to buy a new air-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile at an estimated cost of $15 billion to $20 billion. “Cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon because they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants,” said former defense secretary, William Perry.
“During the initial phases of every major application of US power over the past 40 years, bombers have led the first strikes because of their range, speed, and payload. Operating from assured bases, long-range strike aircraft allow the US to create desired effects unachievable by any other means,” said 6 Retired Generals in Breaking Defense.
“This capacity will stabilize key regions in times of peace; deter aggressors; reassure allies; and yield war-winning effects during time of war. Having long-range, high payload, and low observability in an aircraft that can conduct multiple missions spanning the spectrum of operations is an asymmetric advantage of the US.”
“Given the imperative of these capabilities to keep our advantage as the world’s sole superpower, the geriatric age of most of the force, and its dwindling effectiveness, one thing is clear: the United States needs this new bomber,” said 6 Retired Generals in Breaking Defense.
US Air Force Vision
The Vision of US Air force is Global Vigilance, Global Reach and Global Power for America. This is achieved through core missions through air, space, and cyberspace like Air and Space Superiority even in contested environments; Globally integrated ISR and enhanced ISR capabilities for operations in contested environments; Rapid global mobility to remote, austere, and distributed locations in contested environments;
Credibly threaten and effectively conduct global strike by holding any target on the planet at risk and, if necessary, disabling or destroying it promptly including any hardened or deeply buried targets. Reliable, resilient, and interoperable command and control systems that give commanders the ability to conduct highly coordinated joint operations on Global scale at a high tempo and level of intensity using centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.
ACC Analysis and 2011 Design Goals
According to extensive ACC analysis, the new aircraft should be able to hit any target in the world, no matter how distant, well-defended or hardened, Gen. William Fraser, who commanded Air Combat Command (ACC) responded in an e-mailed response to questions.
“Previous ACC analysis shows a combat radius of between 2,000 and 2,500 nautical miles is sufficient, which equals a 4,000- to 5,000-nautical-mile range. All points on Earth are within about 1,800 nautical miles from the closest body of water. The additional range allows for air refueling and survivable routing to a target, and the remainder translates to persistence,” said Frazer quoted by Dave Majumdar.
Chris Hernandez, past senior Northrop Grumman executive, said that such a bomber might fly missions of 50 to 100 hours, refueling in the air to extend its persistence
The ACC commander said the new aircraft should carry more than munitions. It should carry sensors to gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, data links to share it around the globe, and even the command-and-control gear that would allow the crew to direct other aircraft and forces, he said.
Still, the bomber would be just part of a family of systems “designed to provide penetrating strike; airborne electronic attack; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and standoff weapons, Fraser said quoted by Dave Majumdar.
Designed to use commercial off-the-shelf propulsion, C4ISTAR, and radar technologies, Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and aerial reconnaissance along with command and control gear to enable the crew to direct other aircraft and forces.
Other design goals in January 2011 were Subsonic maximum speed, “Optionally manned” (for non-nuclear missions), Ability to “survive daylight raids in heavily defended enemy territory”.
Deptula also noted that the optionally manned requirement allows missions that demand extreme endurance. “There is absolutely no reason, rationale or policy that would support flying remotely piloted aircraft with nuclear weapons onboard,” he said. “At the same time, there may be scenarios where persistence is of great value, in which the person becomes limiting factor. So by designing an optionally inhabited aircraft, you get the best of both worlds.”
According to Lt. Gen. David Deptula, past Air Force’s ISR chief, the service would likely seek to buy about 175 bombers: 120 “combat coded” aircraft to be distributed in 10 squadrons, plus about 55 more for training, attrition reserves, backup aircraft and flight testing.