A few details have emerged about the U.S. Air Force's nascent plan to develop a new bomber.
It should be able to fly unrefueled more than 5,000 nautical miles and be stealthy or well-equipped enough to operate independently inside enemy air defenses, current and former Air Force officials and analysts said.
And the service will likely seek to buy about 175 of the new aircraft, according to retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who until recently was the Air Force's ISR chief.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are the leading contenders for the job of prime contractor, according to analysts. All three companies declined to comment until the program is formalized, which is expected to happen in the 2012 budget proposal slated to be unveiled around Feb. 14.
Air Force officials have been tight-lipped about the new aircraft, announced Jan. 6 by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told reporters Jan. 12 that it would be an "optionally manned," nuclear-capable, long-range aircraft that is part of a "family of systems" and will conduct ground surveillance and electronic attack.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the incoming vice chief of staff, has said details will remain under wraps "until the budget rollout," while Gen. William Fraser, who commands Air Combat Command (ACC), echoed a Donley talking point.
"This new long-range penetrating bomber will provide great operational flexibility to joint commanders," Fraser wrote in a Jan. 20 email.
Why the hush-hush?
For one thing, the program faces various opponents. In April 2009, Gates axed an earlier Air Force effort, the Next Generation Bomber program, which was meant to field a new plane by 2018 and had early contracts with a Boeing-Lockheed team and Northrop Grumman.
That program faced stiff opposition from the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, and Christine Fox, who directs the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office. Both viewed bombers as outmoded and expensive.
Cartwright, a former chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, favors missiles for long-range strike, including proposals for conventionally tipped ICBMs and hypersonic cruise missiles.
Another problem is that the service might not have settled on exact requirements.
"Every time they talk about a family of systems or having an optionally unmanned system or making it nuclear-capable, it sounds to me like the idea is still fairly nebulous, so they maybe slowed down in coalescing behind a particular design. My guess is: In the end, it will look like a fairly conventional long-range bomber," said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va.
But Fraser had offered more details last fall. 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, he said last October 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," he said.
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.
According to Deptula, 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.
Ten squadrons are needed because the Air Force deploys its forces via 10 Air Expeditionary Forces, which include squadrons of different types of aircraft, Deptula said."120 is the target number. Now, that's me talking; what the Air Force actually comes up with is yet to be determined," he said.
Deptula said the Air Force might be able to field the bomber in 10 years if DoD acquisition processes were reformed.
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."
Chris Hernandez, a senior Northrop Grumman executive, said last fall that such a bomber might fly missions of 50 to 100 hours, refueling in the air to extend its persistence.
More broadly, Deptula said the Air Force should not allow preconceived notions of the traditional bomber role to limit the capabilities of the next-generation aircraft.
"Technology, as it moves forward, is allowing us to conduct many, many more sets of activities and put many, many more capabilities on a single platform than we have in the past," he said.
Donley said the new aircraft would be built largely on mature technologies to speed deployment and keep costs down.
Thompson speculated that some technology for the new aircraft has likely been developed in secret programs.
Technology already developed in black programs could also help the Air Force meet its objective of funding the bomber largely by pinching pennies elsewhere in the Air Force.
Richard Aboulafia at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said, "It seems like too much of a budgetary leap, but on the other hand, there might be something in the black world."
Aboulafia put the total cost of a new bomber program at $40 billion to $50 billion; Thompson agreed in rough terms, putting annual developmental costs at around $2 billion a year, annual production costs at $2 billion to $3 billion, and total program duration around 25 years.
"But of course, I don't know what their production objective is. I don't know how many planes they'll ultimately want to buy," Thompson said.
The analysts agreed that the Air Force must refresh its aging bomber force soon. The average B-52 is approaching 50 years old; the 1980s-era B-1, 25 years; and the B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, 20 years old. Moreover, only five or six of the 20 B-2s are available at any time, Deptula said.