The blossoming, yet at the same time shadowy, saga that has become America’s next long-range bomber, now known as Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), continues to gain steam, although it has yet to be determined if the current economic investment being made in the program equates to only a temporary sugar high or a long-term adequately funded initiative. You can read an update on this program in the recent Flightglobal.com piece posted here.
LRS-B, once known as the “Next Generation Bomber” and “2018 Bomber,” should be amongst America’s top military priorities, one that perfectly fits into America’s shift in focus from nation building and counter-insurgency fighting in the Middle East to peer state conflict in the Pacific region. Instead, the F-35, an aircraft that is arguably poorly suited for a conflict over the Pacific, especially when it comes to the predictably based A model, is sucking USAF coffers dry at an unprecedented and even unpredictable rate. So either the F-35 program gets axed and the LRS-B becomes part of a rationalized replacement program for it, which is sadly a very unlikely possibility, or the LRS-B has to be able to prove its business case to the folks at the Pentagon, the White House and on Capitol Hill. Currently, the USAF seems to want to field something, almost anything, that can fly far and survive in contested airspace with a decent weapons load. At this time it seems that the program will have somewhat limited goals by today’s standards, with more focus being applied to cost control and time-frames than ancillary capabilities beyond long-range strike, hence the name Long Range Strike Bomber. This reality is a product of the USAF’s management living within a post F-35 world, one where “getting iron on the ramp,” albeit with degraded capabilities, and then hoping for further upgrades down the line, is necessary as there simply is no cash due to the Joint Strike Fighter monetary black-hole. Yet treating a program like the LRS-B as specifically a bomber requirement, or even calling it a bomber, maybe the entirely wrong way to compete for limited defense funds. This is not 1980, where a single large airframe need perform only a single task. Quite the contrary, the idea of building a modern stealthy “flying truck” of sorts is incredibly exciting and much more relevant to the single role alternative. So instead of saying that the USAF needs 100 billion dollars for a bomber, the requirement should be aimed at needing that money for an incredibly flexible long-range multi-role stealth platform that is geared to do many things within the challenging area denial and anti-access combat environment. In framing the LRS-B in this fashion, the USAF can “dip into” other looming requirements, and thus funding categories, which would surely help such a program’s chances of budgetary survival and greatly bolster its overall relevance.
Although the USAF has said the Next Generation Bomber would wear several hats, including possessing some surveillance potential in addition to its long-range strike focus, this multi-role functionality is less clear now that the program has morphed into the LRS-B iteration. But we must ask ourselves, just how much capability could the USAF build into a semi-clean sheet design so as to make an incredibly strong economic case for such a substantial defense-related investment? Keep in mind all these requirements do not have to be delivered in the aircraft straight from the factory, but designers must work their potential into the initial LRS-B design in order to cost effectively make them a reality later on. So here are some capabilities that would be beneficial for the LRS-B to one day be able to field, some of them are most conservative than others, but once again, we only have one shot at this for probably the better part of another century, so let’s make the design as flexible as possible to evolve and grow into the future:
- Standoff Attack & Deep Strike: This is already the cornerstone of the LRS-B concept. Basically the aircraft would need to be able to carry enough payload over at least 5000 miles un-refueld in order to give it the deep strike potential currently required. The aircraft would not have to carry as large of a weapons load as the B-2. Instead of two weapons bays, as seen on the B-2, possibly one over-sized bay capable of launching a dozen and a half JASSMs or dropping a single 30,000lb Massive Ordinance Penetrator would be sufficient. Ideally, such an aircraft would be able to carry a myriad of weapons on a single mission, each tailored for their intended target. For instance, when attacking airfield, the LRS-B should be able to launch a few JASSMs at key air defense nodes on its way in toward the target, then a couple dozen SDBs to take out each individual aircraft shelter, as well as a half dozen 2,000lb JDAMs for destroying larger structures and cratering the runway. Also, the inclusion of beyond visual range air to air missiles should not be out of the question due to the vulnerable nature of the LRS-B’s deep strike mission set. Even the ability to carry the AIM-9X Block II internally could be incredibly beneficial as it could be cued against fighter aircraft in a lock on after launch mode that would not require the LRS-B to maneuver for targeting. Utilizing one weapons bay could reduce the aircraft’s size and weight and thus its cost when compared to a B-2 sized platform. Furthermore, the aircraft has to use the best wide-band stealth design and treatments currently available. These include RF, IR, acoustic, and possibly even visual low observable techniques. Ideally such a machine would be built out of existing and proven components when available and cutting edge components only where it is most advantageous to the design. Migrating the F-35′s Electro-Optical targeting system and Distributive Aperture System directly into the LRS-B design for enhanced situational awareness and precision targeting would be an example of this. Using the B-2′s recently upgraded massive AESA radar arrays would be another. The LRS-B should also feature the latest in open architecture mission computer systems as it would allow capabilities to be added over time with minimally invasive hardware changes and thus would lower “spiral development” costs. In the end, a rationalized design that balances cutting edge and modular interchangeable technologies with cost and development time-frames would be beneficial when it comes to the survival of the program over time. Yet this does not mean that the actual airframe itself cannot be a totally new and innovative multi-role design, it just means that the aircraft’s subsystems could be sourced in many cases “off the shelf.”
- Signals Intelligence: I am fairly certain that the USAF already has this capability in mind when it came to the Next Generation Bomber, although now that the program has morphed into the LRS-B I am not as certain. Regardless, a bomber of this sophistication that is designed to survive deep inside enemy territory would already have an incredibly sensitive and capable signals intelligence capability. Being able to precisely locate radar emitters and key transmitting components of an enemy’s integrated air defense system is absolutely crucial for war planners as well as for operating the LRS-B successfully in contested airspace. No aircraft is totally invisible to radar, and in order to stay far enough away from threatening SAM sites and search radars to remain undetected you have to know where exactly they are and what exactly they are. With this in mind, the LRS-B could use its built-in digital radar warning receiver (RWR) and electronic service measures (ESM), as well as other modular missionized electronic surveillance equipment that could be temporarily mounted in its large weapons bay, to record and/or transmit incredibly high-fidelity electronic intelligence information. Sure, the RC-135s, EP-3s, RQ-4 and various other more traditional aircraft prosecute this mission today, but none can do so without the enemy even knowing they are there or while deep inside the enemy’s territory. The best surveillance data can be had when the enemy does not even know they are being watched, low observable surveillance provides such an edge. Then, when you pair this capability with the LRS-B’s ability to launch things, such as air launched decoys and miniature drones, you have the ability for a single platform to not only passively listen to the enemy’s radar transmissions and other emissions on the electromagnetic spectrum, but you also have the ability to “stimulate” the enemy’s integrated air defense network at standoff distances, in an almost totally invisible manner, without putting American lives at risk. This way, during crucial surveillance missions, a LRS-B performing SIGINT duties could actually poke and prod specific enemy air defense sites without recourse. The data collected during a “SIGINT” mission could be recorded on-board and reviewed once the aircraft has returned to base or it could be beamed off the LRS-B via satellite data-link continuously in real-time (which degrades the invisibility of the aircraft to some extent) or in periodic bursts for near-real time exploitation.
- Communications Intelligence: LRS-B could become a near invisible interceptor of enemy communications in much the same way it would prosecute the more “organic” signals intelligence mission as stated above. Once again, the bomber’s weapons bay could provide an area to mount specialized mission equipment in a conformal manner that would be designed to intercept enemy voice transmissions. Once again these transmissions could be data-linked back to a ground station in real-time using low probability of intercept (LPI) datalink, or it could be transmitted once the aircraft is back in friendly airspace, or just downloaded once the aircraft has returned back to base. By using an active link during the mission, it may be possible to use the LRS-B as a remote platform, with the equivalent of a RC-135′s cabin full of analysts and technicians remotely manipulating the communications intelligence payload in real-time in a ground station thousands of miles away. It could even provide this function passively why conducting other primary missions, thus leveraging the maximum potential of every hour put on the airframe while in or around hostile airspace, and thus risking less aircraft over the duration of a campaign. Once the aircraft has completed its COMINT mission it could be reverted back to bomber configuration by removing the module from the aircraft’s weapons bay.
- Jammer: The LRS-B would most-likely be outfitted with an advanced built-in electronic warfare and jamming suite that could be useful not only for self escorting duties but also for protecting other allied assets in the airspace around it during large scale raids. Then when you take into account that the aircraft will undoubtedly pack a massive AESA radar array, which would give the bomber an incredibly powerful organic electronic and cyber attack capability, the LRS-B is really already an electronic warfare platform by default. Additionally, by once again utilizing a large conformal array, or canoe, that could fit within the aircraft’s weapons bay, an LRS-B could provide ridiculously powerful jamming support on a level that currently does not exist in the US armed forces. Also, such an aircraft could use its weapons carrying capacity, or a portion of it, to launch a swarm of advanced autonomous decoys that could confuse, spoof, and jam the enemy’s integrated air defense system. At the very least, an LRS-B equipped with a modular jamming pallet, could standoff at the edge of the enemy’s air defenses and work as an incredibly potent standoff jammer that could provide electronic warfare support for swarms of UCAVs sent in to attack the enemy’s air defense system before manned assets are brought to bear over the airspace. The USAF’s stand-off jammer requirement has been around for decades and has since remained unfulfilled. With a relatively minor additional investment, the LRS-B may be the perfect platform to finally fill in this gap.
- Low Observable Network Node: Providing an “active net” over the battlefield will be a key requirement for succeeding in the arena of aerial warfare in the 21st century. But how does one do this, especially beyond line of sight, if all the aircraft involved on a mission are low observable (stealth) in nature? Your stealth cover would be blown if you park a Global Hawk or other non-stealth aircraft high above or rear the fringe of an advancing stealthy force, not to mention these aircraft would be vulnerable to enemy attack. In other words, you need a low observable battlefield connectivity node that can collect, fuse, and rebroadcast sensor information from the various stealthily aircrafts’ (F-22, F-35, B-2, RQ-170 etc) unique low probability of intercept (LPI) data-links. The LRS-B is potentially a viable platform for this application, especially when you take into account its ability to survive and persist over or near the battlefield for long periods of time. It may be able to provide this capability when needed while also performing its primary strike function during missions that feature large formations of stealthy US aircraft, as there should be room aboard such a large machine for this kind of hardware. This same capability would be best provided by a high-altitude long-endurance stealthy UAV (such as the defunct Quartz), although one is not said to exist in any relevant numbers at this time. None-the-less, having a manned asset to back such a capability up as a secondary function would be extremely prudent as America’s armed forces continue to rely more and more on data-link and remote information fusion technologies.
- Drone Quarterback: By the time LRS-B hopefully becomes a reality, predicted to be in the mid-2020s at this time, America’s armed forces will most likely be receiving ever greater numbers of low-observable unmanned attack aircraft. These aircraft will be by and large “autonomous” in nature, and able to make their own decisions over the battlefield during the opening days of a conflict. But this does not mean there won’t be times when they need to ask a question, or where it will be advantageous to simply tell them what to do. This is where LRS-B could come in handy. The aircraft could work as a line of sight control platform, data fusion center and relay router for swarms of marauding UCAVs. Such a line of sight capability is known to be more stable, harder to detect and much more jam resistant than its satellite alternative. An LRS-B orbiting on the outside edge of the battle-space, where it can freely relay large amounts of data, collected by UCAVs operating deep in enemy airspace, to control centers around the globe using its low probability of intercept satellite data-link, could also provide an active line of sight network for the drone swarm. This way, in a pinch, the drones’ operators could talk to their machines directly via the LRS-B working as a data relay node. Even the two-man crew aboard LRS-B could monitor a battle plan being executed by an unmanned swarm and make quick changes on the fly or approve a drone’s next action if it is deemed by the drone’s brain to be outside of its automated parameters or too confusing for its software to figure out on its own. Such a line of sight data-link and satellite relay system could be an essential element of operating UCAVs at extremely long ranges and over extremely hostile territory. Think of it as a human foreman of a robotic production line, someone to trouble shoot issues on the fly and to relay status updates up to the management on a continuous basis. Every football team needs a quarterback, in this case that would be the LRS-B and her crew, with the couching staff monitoring the game from thousands of miles away and all the rest of the players being robots.
- Battlefield Area Surveillance: The LRS-B could provide invaluable radar, and even electro-optical, surveillance very near or even over the battlefield. Such a capability, that could leverage an aircraft like the LRS-B’s huge radar aperture, could provide ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar surveillance back to commanders in the field, or anywhere in the world for that matter, in real-time. The aircraft’s long loitering time would also be a key factor in providing this capability. Seeing as the E-8 J-STARS fleet of archaic 707s are rapidly aging, and money to replace them partially or in full has not been identified, so building portion of the J-STARS capability into the LRS-B may help divert some much-needed funds its way. For instance, splitting the large-scale GMTI job between a P-8 airframe (737) focused on a standoff capability and an over-the-battlefield capability via the LRS-B may be prudent. The stealthy over the battlefield radar surveillance capability has been on the DoDs wish list since the “Pave Mover” and “Tacit Blue” programs that took place some over 30 years ago. Today, some of this requirement may be finally provided on a micro-tactical level by the RQ-170 Sentinel, but publicly a low observable battlefield aerial radar surveillance platform of strategic capability has never been disclosed. You can read more about Have Blue, Pave Mover and its relation to the RQ-170 in the popular Aviationintel special feature linked here: http://aviationintel.com/2012/01/12/rq-170-origins-part-ii-the-grandson-of-tacit-blue/
- Maritime Strike: The B-2 is not known for its maritime strike capability, and in reality none of the aircraft in the USAF’s current bomber lineup are highly optimized for this duty, especially in a anti-access/area denial scenario. Sure the B-52 has demonstrated its ability to hit moving targets with JDAMs, as has the B-1, yet striking highly defended targets like Aircraft carriers, or ships in the enemy’s littorals with free-fall guided bombs, or even the venerable AGM-84 Harpoon, is not really the ideal weapon-aircraft combination in the days of initiatives like the “Air-Sea Battle” concept. This is especially true when fighting against a well armed and modern enemy that possess a powerful navy with integrated air defense capability. Instead, the USAF should come up with an anti-shipping variant of the stealthy JASSM, or even a larger cruise missile, and integrate it into the LRS-B in a complete manner. The LRS-B’s powerful radar arrays used for surface targeting, combined with a stealthy or hypersonic anti-ship missiles that can pack a big warhead over a standoff range, would really allow the LRS-B to step into the realm of air to surface warfare in a big way. Such a combination of capabilities would provide an incredibly potent anti-ship asset that could work at depleting an enemy’s “naval buffer” surrounding their shores. An affective campaign using the LRS-B against picket ships and other key naval vessels would open up the door for shorter ranged assets, such as carrier-borne UCAVs or F-35s, to begin prosecuting targets on or near the enemy’s coastline. With an increasing focus and dollars being applied to the emerging “air-sea battle doctrine,” surely the LRS-B, if properly designed for maritime strike missions and paired with a proper munitions for that job, can economically compete with other systems as an invaluable anti-access/area denial busting weapon system of the future.
- Theater Ballistic Missile Defense: LRS-B could be designed to counter theater ballistic missiles. By utilizing its large weapons bay and low observability, a LRS-B could loiter right on the edge of the enemy’s airspace, waiting for the alert that a ballistic missile has been launched. At which time it could employ anti-ballistic missile missiles against the rising threat. The MIM-104 Patriot “PAC-3″ was paired with an AIM-9X’s seeker head for testing aboard an F-15C in this exact role recently. The long-range anti-ballistic missile-missile could be shot at an enemy ballistic missile during its crucial launch phase. This is best time to engage such a threat as the ability to shoot down a ballistic missile during its launch phase works as a clear deterrent to the launching party as whatever nasty stuff was packed in the ballistic missile in question’s warhead would fall back near its place of origin’s once it is shot down. Furthermore, the launch and boost phase is where the ballistic missile is at its lowest energy state while at the same time providing the largest infra-red signature. In other words, the LRS-B could attempt to capture some missile defense dollars by adding such a capability, which due to the aircraft’s stealthy penetrating abilities, could allow for an even more effective way of providing a ballistic missile screen over a war zone than the AEGIS class Ballistic Missile Defense Destroyers that are deployed today.
- Air To Air Arsenal Ship: LRS-B could carry much larger air to air missiles, and in larger quantities, than what an F-22, F-15, F-16 or F-35 are capable of carrying today. With little modification, an LRS-B could push into enemy territory behind a line of F-22s, and/or F-35s, on a stealthy counter-air mission in the role as a stealthy weapons truck. F-22s and F-35s could remotely request missiles from the LRS-B as they detect, sort and prosecute enemy targets, via passing on the targeting coordinates to the LRS-B with a command to fire. The #1 thing F-22 pilots seem to dislike about their jets (beyond the Raptor cough fiasco apparently) is that it “only” carries six beyond visual range air to air missiles. What is more concerning is that the F-35, at least at this point, will only carry four of these missiles. LRS-B, working as an air to air artillery battery of sorts, could be the perfect force multiplier for air to air fighters during the opening days of a conflict, especially against a major player like China who has thousands of tactical aircraft in inventory. Having the LRS-B lob extremely long-range air to air missiles on cue from forward deployed fighter’s would allow for greater fighter cover over the battlefield and would provide a tactically unpredictable wildcard in the fight. LRS-B could even gain an air to air mode for its powerful AESA radar, most likely based on the B-2′s latest upgrade, that could allow it to work as a standoff radar picture provider for stealthy F-22s and F-35s forward deployed over the battle-lines. This would allow the F-22s and F-35s to remain almost totally “silent” while venturing deep into enemy airspace, which would offer them an enhanced degree of stealthiness and thus survivability as the big LRS-B provides a common aerial radar picture while loitering safely in less hostile airspace.
- Tanker: This is my favorite out of the entire list. It is somewhat preposterous to think that if the US were really going to face a peer state with serious firepower that we would have an elaborate and incredibly expensive force of short-legged tactical fighters sweep towards the enemy’s borders undetected, followed by big, unstealthy tankers lumbering a couple hundred miles behind. With other countries procuring long-range surface to air missile systems, both land and sea based, as well as stealth fighters, the way we have done the fighter business for decades simply will not do. With an almost all stealth fighter force, you need a contingent of stealthy tankers to support such a fleet during combat far from home, especially during the opening weeks of a conflict. These stealthy tanking aircraft would not be used as aerial “bridge” tankers in the traditional sense, such as dragging fighter aircraft across benign airspace enroute to their targets, or working as “lilly pads” for tactical aircraft regularly traversing long distances. Instead they would be utilized to accompany low observable combatants the last 500 miles or so from their targets, and to provide them with gas close to the enemy’s shore, as well as on their way out of enemy air space after completing their missions. Furthermore, with autonomous aerial refueling close to becoming an operational reality, the potential of refueling already long-legged UCAVs via a stealthy tanker aircraft would be a massive force multiplier and could result in a quantum leap in unmanned and undetected persistence over enemy airspace. In many ways, fielding a version of the LRS-B with tanking capacity could save the US gobs of money as less stealthy tactical aircraft would be required to achieve the same persistence over the battlefield during a time of conflict. In other words, you could buy less stealthy tactical aircraft and have the same effect as having a larger inventory if they were paired with a stealthy tanker, and this is especially true in the stealthy UCAV department, where range and loitering time is more limited by the oil and lubricants the aircraft carries than a pilot’s physical endurance. Finally, in the next two decades we will have to buy new tankers no matter what bomber we buy or do not buy, so why not make sure some of these new tankers are low observable in nature. If this stealthy aerial refueling capability, that will surely be more expensive than a standard tanker of equal size, were to bite into the standing tanker procurement budget, than offset some of this expense by immediately standing up private contractor tanking services for domestic training and international non-combat related missions such as “fighter drags” or refueling heavy cargo aircraft on international supply flights. In the end betting the budgetary farm on a fleet of thirsty stealth fighters that have combat radiuses in the realm of 500 miles while at the same time stating that the Pacific Theater, with all of its distance challenges, is our new strategic focus, is just ridiculous without a stealth tanker. China is fully aware that it cannot do battle with our tactical fighters on a toe to toe basis and win without saturating an area with aircraft and thus absorbing huge losses. Yet they do know of our ridiculous dependance on aerial tankers. It is a lot easier to shoot down a tanker that eight individual F-22s depend on for gas than to shoot down the F-22s themselves. Hence China’s J-20, an aircraft built with long range in mind and a stealthy skin, all aimed at sneaking by our fighters and taking out their source of nutrition, the lumbering and very detectible aerial tanker. With a stealth combat tanker this damning issue ceases to exist.
- Transport: The LRS-B will be a large and powerful machine with the potential for modular adaptability as it is being procured from a clean-sheet design. By designing the LRS-B as a stealthy tanker-transport aircraft first, and then incorporating strike, networking, jamming and surveillance capabilities into that cavernous airframe, you can get a lot of different missions out of one common design. For those who are crying foul that I am pitching a Joint Strike Fighter program like bomber concept, you are wrong! I am asking for a big airframe to do a lot of things, none of which including maneuvering at high G, being packed with miniaturized electronic components, or taking off and landing both on a carrier and vertically. In fact I am not alone in this thinking, Lockheed has pitched its innovative “Speed Agile” concept, and to me it looks like an interesting potential starting point for the LRS-B. America knows how important it is to be able to insert forces deep into enemy territory undetected. The Bin Laden raid was massive proof of this. During that raid, which was a little over a hundred miles from the point of the mission’s origin, saw our insertion and extraction helicopters almost run totally out of fuel. What happens when such a high value target is located hundreds or thousands of miles away from friendly territory? Speed Agile, or a concept like it, would not only allow for a flexible and common stealthy airframe to accomplish multiple missions, but it would also give America the ultimate area denial antidote, the ability to insert sizable forces deep into an advanced enemy’s territory, far from friendly basing. Once again, the stealth transport, or transport tanker idea, would have to be the very philosophy that the LRS-B foundation builds off of, as you can make all the aforementioned potential missions a reality out of a design that is a transport aircraft first, but you cannot make a transport aircraft out of a design that tries to retrofit such a capability last.
- Optionally Manned All Of The Above: The fact that there is a good chance that the LRS-B will be designed to be optionally manned will make it an even more of a potent, flexible and persistent strike platform, sensor truck, jammer, network node, or even possibly a tanker-transport, than we could have ever imagined. Although I find it a little odd that an aircraft as expensive and sensitive as an LRS-B could be cut loose without a crew onboard, we must also remember that if you were asked a decade and a half ago if the US would be flying drones all over enemy and friendly airspace around the world, and striking high value targets at will in the process, I think you would have been hard pressed to believe it. Furthermore, advanced drone systems like the RQ-170 have already been risked over very hostile territory and over countries with strong military-industrial ties to our biggest peer competitor, China. We saw this fact emerge on the world stage when an RQ-170 Sentinel was lost almost fully intact over Iranian territory last December (for globally recognized coverage on the RQ-170 incident click here). For some missions, especially those where you are already risking other high-end stealth drone technology, I really do see how risking a large asset like an LRS-B may make some sense if a high value target requires its unique capabilities. For instance, dropping the 30,000lb Massive Ordinance Penetrator, made to hit the worlds most deeply buried bunkers, deep inside a large country with a highly advanced integrated air defense system. On the other hand, using an unmanned LRS-B as an escort tanker or network relay for a swarm of stealthy UCAVs may also make sense. Then there are those missions that may be so critical and so deep inside enemy airspace that it is deemed worthwhile destroying an asset like the LRS-B in order to strike such a target in a timely manner, albeit on a one way trip. Think the Doolittle Raid of WWII, but without the risk to American’s lives and a much higher probability of inflicting serious strategic damage on the enemy. Finally, in a UAV/UCAV only offensive, such as during the first days of a conflict against a highly defended foe, a fully networked LRS-B may be much more effective and tactically agile when compared to a manned LRS-B, as lightning quick reactions to external combat conditions and “hive logic” type of networked cooperation between the various unmanned platforms involved in such a mission can only be fully leveraged if all the systems involved can work together at computerized speed. By doing so fully maximizes each assets’ full potential and unique capabilities against the enemy and through break neck reaction times and dynamic coordination of action on an unprecedented level, such a swarm of drones could get inside the enemy’s decision cycles and kill chains and obliterate them. In other words, when working amongst unmanned systems, an unmanned LRS-B may offer the heavy punch that fighter-sized UCAVs do not, while at the same time providing much-needed network connectivity support for the swarm as whole. Think of an unmanned LRS-B within a diverse drone swarm as capital ships in a naval flotilla. They would provide a place of information fusion, command and control and communications, while also packing the heaviest punch. Although in this case all the ships would be totally automated and making decisions based on 100% of the information available within a fraction of a second. Needless to say, such a capability may be a bit down the road for an aircraft like the LRS-B, but it will, without a doubt, become relevant and it will eventually be deemed highly useful during a protracted conflict against a capable peer state. (For more on the future of drone warfare please read the popular feature “Tyler’s 10 Thoughts On The Future Of Drone Warfare”)
The reality is that the majority of the capabilities discussed above, aside from the transport potential and possibly the refueling capability, could be “spiraled” into the LRS-B program over time instead of being provided fresh out of the factory. Although, I do find it odd that everyone talks about controlling costs, “mission creep,” and “freezing designs” for the incredibly relevant LRS-B, yet with the F-35 there is no limits to the “and the kitchen sink” capability bonanza. Seeing as the F-35A will mainly be a strike aircraft with a comparatively tiny endurance, and thus will be clearly ill-suited for America’s future military focus on expeditionary warfare in the Pacific, you would think that the one place where a conservative, incremental, stripped down and a cripplingly uncreative design philosophy would be less than ideal would be when designing a large, high-endurance, heavy lifting, heavy hitting stealthy airframe that has the potential to do so much for such a long time over the battlefield of the future.
In the Next Generation Bomber (now the LRS-B) initiative we have the potential to seize the moment and to create a transformational multi-role weapon system that can bolster or replace many existing capabilities with a truly common airframe design. Instead, because we have little funds available due to the crushing, wasteful and strategically mis-matched F-35 program, we are going to take what is arguably the most important US combat aircraft of the next 50 years and give it the “step-child” treatment. This is truly a shame. In fact it goes against everything the DoD and the Obama Administration says it wants, especially when it comes to being focused on long-range warfare in an area-denial/anti-access scenario. With this in mind, one has to seriously ask themselves- what is more important when it comes to Air-Sea Battle and the Pacific Theater, a common fleet of anti-access busting long-range bombers, sensor platforms, jammers, network nodes, arsenal ships and possibly even tanker-transports, or a slow fighter jet that can carry a tiny fraction of the LRS-B’s weapons load and sports a sliver of its unrefueled range? At least the F-35B and C can be forward deployed aboard ships, and in the B’s case even on small islands. The A model on the other hand will be locked into operating out of distant 8,000+ foot static runways, which are basically massive bulls-eyes on the enemy’s primary targeting list. Moreover, these jets will have to suckle gas for hours from tankers to even get close to their targets, (look at a map and the distance between Guam and China!). Once they are actually on station they will be just as vulnerable as their flying gas station visibly orbiting a couple hundred miles away at best. Simply put, specifically the F-35A is the wrong aircraft at the wrong time for the USAF and the US Armed Forces as a whole, whereas the Next Generation Bomber can be anything we want to be, it just takes funding and creativity.
When the B-2 first went into service there was no such thing as GPS guided munitions. Then in the late 1990s the B-2 pioneered the application GPS guided weaponry over the Balkans. All of the sudden a single stealthy aircraft could hit 16 individual targets on single pass with a high degree of certainty that the each target would be destroyed. Now, the B-2 can do the same thing with 80 separate bombs and their intended targets on a single mission. Soon, with upgrades and integration of the small diameter bomb, the 20+ year old bat-winged aircraft may be able to hit two and a half times that amount of targets on a single sortie, with each bomb being able to fly autonomously to its own objective some 50 miles away from its launch point! That means the B-2 will threaten 200 potential targets in an alley of airspace over 100 miles wide and thousands of miles long during a single mission. If we can do all that with a 30-year-old design that runs on 286 processors, imagine what we could do with a properly funded LRS-B. Then consider that we only have 19 operational B-2s (of which only a handful are available at any given time), imagine a fleet of 200 LRS-Bs. Such a armada would represent unprecedented strategic reach for the United States, and would be an unrivaled deterrent to any aggressor, regardless of their sophistication.
Ideally the USAF could buy half (or none, but that is a whole different story) the number of F-35A currently on the books and funnel those funds towards buying and updating existing proven platforms as well as investing in a truly multi-role next generation heavy stealth strike aircraft. In doing so, the USAF could remove its bank breaking dependence on the “tanker nipple” and provide for a much more flexible force that is truly capable of waging warfare at long distances with ease, regardless of the enemy’s anti-access capabilities. Instead we allow ourselves to sit with the JSF gun to our head. We are warned that if we reduce the F-35 program’s procurement numbers in almost any way, the program will enter a fiscal death spiral, thus we are forced to bet the farm on a weapon system that is not even suited for America’s future military strategy. Sadly, the true victim in this hostage like situation will most likely be the incredibly relevant LRS-B. Suffocated in the black world for lack of white world investment and by the fears of those in power who have their careers riding on the F-35 boondoggle. Heaven forbid a multi-role heavy stealth strike and surveillance platform could compete openly with their precious, but increasingly irrelevant, one size-fits-all measly ranged fighter. In the end America’s tax payers and war-fighters lose and Lockheed Martin wins.
The opportunity to design and field a new bomber comes only every few decades now, if even that. They are the costliest aircraft the US will buy and you cannot “spread their capability around” like you can with different fighter designs. The way we fight has changed, a long range airplane with a big weapons bay is not all about carrying bombs anymore, and the size, price, and complexity of a bomber sized stealth platform lends itself more to a multi-role concept than a high-performance fighter. In order to take full advantage of the opportunity that the LRS-B presents we must immedietly rationalize our investment in the F-35 program and begin investing heavily in an incredibly adaptable LRS-B. Although we must also be realistic, the F-35 has already chalked up an impressive reputation for killing other aircraft (and it has not even fired a missile!) and/or keeping new technologies hiding in the black world for fear that their innovative capabilities will draw dollars away from the teetering one-size-fits all fighter program. Sadly, I predict that the LRS-B will be the F-35 Lightning II’s next “death via budgetary strangulation” victim. Left in its place we would be lucky to get a stripped down still-born attack aircraft that was never even designed to reach its full and transformative potential…
*For more reading, please take a look at the following past posts: