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.
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 Air Force is planning a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
US strategic bomber fleet is undergoing a radical change. The eight-engine B-52 will undergo several modifications, including an upgraded aero engine, and will remain operational for over 100 years. B-1 and B-2 bombers will be retired from service by 2050.
B-2, the current operational, strategic bomber, was unveiled in 1988. The B-2 strategic bomber is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber. B-21, Raider was presented to the world on December 2, 2022. The Air Force is planning to replace the Rockwell B-1 Lancer and Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit with the B-21 by 2040, and could possibly replace the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress after that.
USAF upgraded B-52 Stratofortress
The legendary B-52 Stratofortress nuclear heavy bomber has been a bastion of the US Air Force (USAF’s) bomber fleet since it was first introduced in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War. Seventy-six B-52Hs are still in service, with another 12 in reserve storage.
Of late, the nearly 70-year-old bomber has begun to show signs of aging, but the USAF remains determined to continue to fly the B-52s for decades to come, and as part of that, the aircraft has been going through continuing reforms to stay viable.
Boeing released a video in Oct 2022 accompanied by an announcement that the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP) has completed wind tunnel testing using a model of the B-52 Stratofortress.
The CERP is a part of the Pentagon’s $11.8 billion upgrade program for its fleet of B-52 strategic bombers to keep them flying into the 2050s and probably beyond to deter the US’ near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia.
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.
The B-52’s current Pratt and Whitney-made TF33 turbofan engines need an overhaul after every 6,000 flight hours, which according to an estimate in 2016, the USAF must spend $2 million per engine.
In September 2021, Rolls-Royce North America was selected to supply the replacement jet engines for the Cold War-era B-52 bomber. The USAF decided after Rolls Royce’s F130 beat GE Aviation’s CF34-10 and Pratt & Whitney’s PW800 in a competition known as the ‘Commercial Engine Replacement Program’ (CERP).
One of the concerns was that if new pylons were needed for mounting the new engines, that would involve a costly re-engineering of B-52’s wings. Therefore, to save the costs, the USAF required the companies competing for the re-engining deal to submit proposals that could leverage the aircraft’s four existing underwing engine pods, each of which holds two existing TF33 engines. Tom Bell, President, and CEO of Rolls Royce North America revealed last year that Rolls Royce’s proposal called for modifying the wing “as little as possible” to reduce the risks.
The B-21 Raider
The Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider is an American strategic bomber under development for the United States Air Force (USAF) by Northrop Grumman. As part of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program, it is to be a long-range, stealth intercontinental strategic bomber for the USAF, able to deliver conventional and thermonuclear weapons.
As per existing projections, the B-21 program will cost a whopping USD 203 Billion over 30 years. Currently, six B-21 platforms are in various stages of development. The first B-21 flight is scheduled for mid-2023, provided all system evaluations and ground trials proceed without a hitch.
The Air Force began planning for the B-21 in 2011 and was awarded the major development contract to Northrop Grumman in October 2015. The B-21 is expected to make its first flight in 2023 and enter service by 2027
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.”
Many aspects of the B-21 program are highly classified; the program is designated as a special access program. The Congressional Research Service noted in 2021 that the B-21’s technical details and specifications, such as speed, enabling systems, “size, required stealth, structure, number and type of engines, projected weapons, and onboard sensors remain classified” although some information about various other aspects of the program have been made public since 2015. The first photos of the aircraft were released on 2 December 2022, taken during a rollout ceremony at Northrop Grumman’s production facilities in Palmdale, California.
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.
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