20 March 2008

Bombers Coming and Going

The F-117, affectionately known as the Wobbly Goblin, which was the first stealth aircraft to fire shots in anger, will be retired this April. It entered service in 1981 and 59 were built. One was shot down in the Kosovo conflict. It was designed to fly small bombing (its payload was only two tons) runs directed at critical targets like communications and anti-aircraft facilities early in a conflict. The B-2 stealth bomber and the F-22 have rendered it obsolete. While it was called a "fighter" based upon its small size, in fact, it was totally unsuitable for air to air combat and would have more appropriately been given the "attack" or "A" designation normally used for fighter sized aircraft designed to drop small bomb payloads.

The Air Force is designing a B-3 bomber. Apparently, "the design of the new bomber [is] already quite advanced, and that it was, like the B-2, being handled as a "black project" (all work done in secrecy, until ready for production.)" The target date for it to enter service is 2018.

[I]t would be stealthy, have a crew of only two, and be capable of staying in the air for over 24 hours at a time. The "B-3" would probably also be capable of super-cruise (travelling long distances at very high speeds), and would definitely have a full array of the latest sensors and communications capabilities.

It isn't obvious that the U.S. Air Force needs a B-3 that lagely replicates the capabilities of the B-2. Modern guided ordinance is an order of magnitude more accurate than the bombs of the Vietnam era. This means that it takes fewer bomb runs with smaller payloads to hit the same number of targets. Also, guided ordinance has reduced the necessity of getting close to a target to deliver ordinance. Submarine based Tomahawk missiles can hit ground targets 1,500 miles away. For example, a Virginia class submarine in the Gulf of Mexico could launch a cruise missile that could destroy a factory in Denver or South Dakota. Long range cruise missiles can also be deployed from old fashioned but effective B-52 bombers.

Speaking of the B-52, a Korean war era plane, the Air Force currently has 76 of them and doesn't want to give them up, despite a Congressional mandate to reduce that number to 56.

In the last fifty years, the air force has developed six heavy bombers (the 240 ton B-52 in 1955, the 74 ton B-58 in 1960, the 47 ton FB-111 in 1969, the 260 ton B-70 in the 1960s, the 236 ton B-1 in 1985, and the 181 ton B-2 in 1992.) All of these were developed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons (bombs or missiles), but have proved more useful dropping non-nuclear bombs. Only the B-70 was cancelled before being deployed.

The well maintained B-52s are quite sturdy and have, on average, only 16,000 flying hours. The air force estimates that the B-52s won't become un-maintainable until they reach 28,000 flight hours. . . . Of the 744 B-52s built, only 94 are still fit for service.

The small number of flight hours logged isn't because the aircraft are young. The B-52 is among the oldest aircraft in the U.S. military:

The average age of U.S. F-15C fighters is 25 years (the more recent two-seat F-15E fighter-bombers average 15 years). The F-16s are 17 years, the U.S. Navy F-18s are 14 years. The B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers both average 47 years of service. The navys P-3C patrol aircraft average 28 years. The C-130 transports average 25 years old, and the gunship variant, the AC-130 average 41 years. Many large helicopter models have similar numbers.

Bombers have so few flight hours for several reasons. They don't require the same intense training in air to air combat required of fighter aircraft. Unlike transport aircraft, they do have many non-training missions in peacetime. They also are needed mostly in the early days of a conflict, once air superiority is achieved and heavy ground forces are subdued a smaller fighter aircraft can carry all necessary ordinance for a single run.

B-52s are popular in operations primarily because they are cheaper to operate than the faster B1-B and the stealthy B-2, whose high tech capabilities are rarely necessary in practice. The B-52 has also joined two other relatively old fashioned planes, the carrier based S-3 and the ground based P-3, in a role as a maritime patrol aircraft that can use high technology sensors (that can identify ships in great detail from 20 miles away at 20,000 feet) and Harpoon cruise missiles with a sixty mile range, in being outfitted for the missile of destroying hostile warships.

While there is no need a new B-3 bomber that combines the stealth of the B-2 with the supersonic speed of the B-1B, there is something to be said for a ground up replacement to the B-52, for which there appears to be greater demand, perhaps based upon a proven commercial aircraft design like the Boeing 747 (indeed the concept of building a bomber on that design has the shorthand reference B-747), or as a variant of the Navy's P-8 maritime patrol aircraft program.

The other question looming over the issue of bomber procurement is whether they really need to be manned. Some reports claim that the B-3 design is capable of being operated without a human crew.

The Navy currently planes to have unmanned combat planes in its carrier fleet by 2025. The British military has a similar program in the works. Initially, these drones are expected to file a role similar to that filled by the F-117 in stealth strike missions.

Backers claim they "will provide greater range and time on station than the manned fleet." More ardent supporters of unmanned aircraft note features like the ability of unmanned aircraft to do high G aerobatics that would allow them to literally fly circles around manned aircraft in air to air combat. The technological leap from a long range cruise missile to a long range unmanned bomber is modest, and is held up more by a lack of a strong Department of Defense constituency for large unmanned aircraft programs than by development difficulties that require 10 or 17 years of lead time.

Drones are already leaping into the small missile platform role. Two models of U.S. fixed wing aircraft drones, the MQ-1 Predator and the larger MQ-9A Reaper, both of which look like model aircraft on steroids, are already being used in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to deliver the same 100 pound Hellfire missiles (originally developed as anti-tank weapons for U.S. attack helicopters). The Reaper is similar in wingspan (but not weight) to a manned A-10 fixed wing attack aircraft, can fly 300 miles an hour at up to 50,000 feet, has payload of 1.5 tons (a little less than the F-117), and can be operated by personnel 7,000 miles away. Most importantly, a Reaper costs only about $15 million each, a seventh of the expected price of an F-35A, much less than the price of an F-22, and somewhat less than the price of an attack helicopter. These drones have a remote human operator in the loop to make fire or not fire decisions, soemthing that has saved friendly troop lives already.

A joint program to develop a armed drone helicopter for the Navy and the Army is on the verge of deploying. It is called the MQ-8 Fire Scout. This drone looks ready to rapidly take over many of the attack and reconnaisance helicopter roles currently filled by the Army's Kiowa and Apache helicopters, and the reconassiance and surface attack roles of the Navy's Seahawk helicopter. It appears that just about any unit that can deploy helicopters now could deploy these armed drones with only minor adjustments.

The experience of the war in Iraq suggests that the attachment of the military establishment to manned platforms evaporates quickly once the lives of their operators are genuinely at stake in a military conflict.

No comments: