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Thursday, December 20, 2012

America's Next Generation Bomber Part I

Image 1: Northrup Grumman B-2 Spirit

America's bomber fleet is small and aging rapidly. With the exception of the B-2, the bulk of the American bomber force is unable to penetrate the air defenses of an advanced hostile nation with acceptable rates of survivability. Although the B-52 force has served the U.S well for half a century, it has its inherent limitations. Survivability against SAM systems became an issue as early on as the Vietnam War. The speed, reduced radar cross section, and payload capacity of the B-1B makes it a highly capable platform. However, in an extremely high threat environment,  its survival is not guaranteed. Only the B-2 can enter a high threat environment, deliver a sizable payload, and leave with impunity. The incredibly capability the B-2 grants USAF is accomplished by only 19 operation aircraft. America needs more stealth bombers in the event of a high intensity conflict with a Pacific great power. The Long Range Strike-B (LRSB) will become instrumental in defeating anti-access weaponry in the event of a future conflict. The case for the LRSB will be made following a brief service history of the B-2 and its contributions to national security.

The B-2 is an ionic image of America's status as a global super power. The B-2 was designed during the late stages of the Cold War to penetrate the advanced Soviet integrated air defense network and deliver nuclear munitions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the B-2 has served the United States like no other aircraft. The B-2 has served in every American conflict since the first bombers were delivered in 1993.  The endurance, survivability and lethality of the B-2 were most recently demonstrated in Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Utilized in conjunction with a storm of over 100 Tomahawk cruise misses, B-2 bombers were able to knock out a significant portion of Libya's air defenses. Three B-2 bombers from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base flew a 25 hour sortie to hit 45 hardened aircraft shelters in Sirte (Brigadier General Scott Vander Hamm, 2011). All shelters were destroyed with no B-2 losses. Although cruise missiles can take out a wide variety of targets, the technology used to intercept cruise missiles has improved rapidly. The Russian S-300PM/PMU1 is claimed to have a 40-85% kill ratio for cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk. (Air Power Australia, 2012) Furthermore, hardened targets such as bunkers or aircraft shelters remain too resilient for standard cruise missiles. Any adversary a fielding high quality SAM system (S-300, S-400, etc) and makes use of hardened facilities could continue to operate inspite of U.S strikes. Eliminating hardened targets ideally suits a B-2 equipped with precision guided bunker busting munitions (e.g GBU-28).

Although the B-2 is an exceptional aircraft, the limited fleet size is a major concern. When the B-2 "Spirit of Kansas" crashed in Guam, the damage was total. Adjusted for inflation, the B-2 costs roughly 2 billion dollars each. With the cost of upgrade packages included, the unit cost of the B-2 is even higher. The B-2 is simply too costly to procure in large numbers. Despite the current robust stealth performance of the B-2,  it was designed two decades ago. New developments in stealth technology will insure the USAF's new bombers continued admittance into heavily defended airspace for decades to come.

Part II: The LSRB (next week)

  6. More on Operation Odyssey Dawn:

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