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When last we met we had a conversation about the challenges the Air Force faces in providing a capable bomber force. We discussed the age of the existing bomber fleet’s backbone, the B-52, the limitations of the B-1, and the fact that the B-2s is limited by the age of the aircraft’s electronics from participating in the "network-centric warfare" model most appropriate for the 21st Century military.

We also examined the probability that future air-defense systems will likely soon raise the threat level to a point where existing US aircraft will no longer be able to operate safely in the highest threat environments.

So what are we to do?

Today we’ll consider several options, including some that change the nature of the heavy bomber fleet in very fundamental ways.

Let’s start with a question that came to light after the first diary was published: why have a bomber capability at all? Here is the response I offered on my personal blog:

...consider darfur.

we know that government aircraft are bombing innocent civilians.

we could presumably disable the aircraft that are doing the bombing and the airfields that support them through aerial bombing of our own; and i would submit to you that such an action would be neither indiscriminate killing nor unjustified.

if we had an administration in power that was so inclined, we could presumably diplomatically "encourage" the cessation of these somali government attacks by presenting the credible threat of bombing as the alternative if the offensive actions do not cease.

in that instance, the capability of bombing is useful without any application of force.

you may recall that iraqi "no fly zones" did control baathist air attacks on kurds and shi'a in the '90s...and while force was used, it seemed less indiscriminate than more so--and reasonably justified as well.

In order to figure out where we’re going let’s again consider what we see as affecting the future. To close out yesterday’s story we asked the following three questions:

--will the emphasis move from manned to unmanned aircraft--and by how much?

--will future wars be more likely to be fought over contested or uncontested airspace?

--and what might be the biggest "doctrinal shift" question: will the US continue to operate nuclear-capable bombers?

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) seems to be the obvious solution: low risk to personnel—at least ours—greater maneuverability, and the potential for more "stealthy" designs.

But before we go too far down this path, we need to make ourselves aware that these aircraft types have limitations of their own:

First, payload: a B-1 can carry up to 30 2,000-pound bombs, but the largest of the currently anticipated UAVs (the X-47A) can only carry two 2,000-pound munitions. Fuel capacity is an issue as well-the heavier or less aerodynamic the aircraft, the more it has to refuel; reducing "loiter times" over any location.

Next, something you would never consider as a battlefield issue: communications bandwidth. To remotely communicate with a Predator sending streaming video, for example, would require roughly half of the secure satellite bandwidth owned by the military in 2003—which was more or less equal to the capacity of two T-1 lines.

Not much has changed since then.

There are space based solutions proposed, but even the fastest satellite data connections available today are roughly the equivalent of a slow DSL (256k) Internet connection.

To field coordinated groups of UAVs and RPVs would require a quantum leap in bandwidth—and there have been some proposals, including a laser-baseddata transfer system that could offer 40Gbps capacity. While this would be a fantastic upgrade, it is a line of sight system, there are certain technical issues still being resolved, and lasers are subject to countermeasures that could result in an adversary disrupting the "control loop" and jamming communications between commanders and aircraft.

To route the data from such a system back to command, however, also requires "backhaul" capacity...meaning every mission would require extra UAVs just to maintain the network. There are proposals to resolve this as well as US Navy ships dedicated to providing remote network "hop" capacity (believe it or not...airships are even making a comeback); but the important point to remember from all of this is that there will be very few missions that ever involve simply sending out a couple of robot airplanes to fix the problem.

The need for refueling also limits the deployment options for UAV and RPV aircraft—at least until confidence is established in "automated" air refueling operations.

There are also issues related to the access these aircraft will have to the US domestic, military and international air traffic control systems that are yet to be addressed; meaning the protocol for operations not "in the black" are still being worked out. The goal is to be able to file instrument flight plans for missions flown by these aircraft and to separate these vehicles by altitude; today ascent and descent procedures through commercial air traffic routes are also still being worked out.

An additional issue: these aircraft have maneuverability characteristics that change the instruction set they can receive—for example, more rapid ascents and descents can be ordered than would be normal for manned aircraft.

If our air forces are never used, they have achieved their finest goal.

--Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Nathan F. Twining , March 1956

Before we can fully consider the application of unmanned aircraft, there are two more issues to address: cost of the vehicles and the safety of the weapons load.

You might think these aircraft would be less expensive than manned aircraft, but that might not be true. One reason is because the X-47A, to give a single example, is required to carry almost 5,000 pounds of payload...and that creates a minimum size and cost limit that can’t be ignored. Three demonstrator X-47A aircraft will cost just over $1 billion, but that includes engineering and development costs that, if spread over a larger production run, would be much lower per unit.

Another cost issue is "mission creep". It is the unofficial policy of the United States Military-Industrial Establishment that once something is designed, it needs to do more...and more...and more. For those unfamiliar with the process, see: Bradley Fighting Vehicle. This policy will impact the design of any UAV or RPV, and they will virtually all trend up to larger and larger (and more costly) designs over time.

It is possible that some relief will be found in the concept of "modularity", but that remains to be seen.

Now a major issue: the perception of the safety of the weapons carried on board these aircraft will control how these aircraft are designed and used.

This related directly back to one of our first questions: will be continue to operate nuclear-capable bombers? If the answer is yes, then we need to realize that unmanned aircraft cannot be used for that mission...because nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to accept nuclear-armed unmanned aircraft that could be just a few software glitches away from disaster.

But the same is true for conventional weapons as well. It would not be likely that an unmanned aircraft with the payload of a B-1 would be coming down the road, if only because of the damage to US interests from an accidental attack on a hospital, or school, or some similarly horrendous target—or a "radio confusion" failure that results in the same outcome.

All of this augurs for the possibility that future unmanned aircraft are unlikely to become much larger than the current designs...even though I expect the current designs to get somewhat larger, again because of "mission creep". Consider, however, that a vehicle carrying twice the load of an X-47A would still only carry four 2,000-pound munitions, not 30, as the B-1 does today.

Another way to deploy weapons in high threat environments is to use cruise missiles from "standoff" locations, which is a capability of the B-52; and there are efforts to develop new cruise missiles that would replace the current Tomahawk cruise missile (it’s too slow and is now vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire) with a missile functionally equivalent to the current "best available anywhere" BrahMos supersonic cruise missile being fielded by the Indian Army in a joint venture with Russia.  

There are proposals to either "life extend" the existing B-52 fleet to perform this mission until 2030 (when super-duper hypersonic aircraft might be deployed) or to field a new penetrating bomber by 2018...and Congress today is moving the Air Force toward the new bomber.

Why does the Air Force need expensive new bombers? Have the people we've been bombing over the years been complaining?

--Former Alabama Governor George Wallace

You may recall that way up there at the top of the story I had promised a possible solution, and here’s where we get to the "interesting new idea" part of the deal.

Colonel Bryan J. Benson (soon to be Brigadier General Benson...and if you’re reading this, congratulations!) is the Vice Commander of the Air Mobility Command’s central control center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, which means he directs the operations of the Air Force’s "airline" of 1,200 transport and refueling aircraft ("motto: the proud bird with the camouflage tail!"); and in his 1996 thesisto the School of Advanced Airpower Studies he proposed developing a fleet of "Transport / Bombers" based on an aircraft platform like the Boeing 767 or Airbus A380...which also happen to be the two candidate aircraft to replace the KC-135 Airborne Tanker.

Such an aircraft would, from the inside, be a freighter, using the standard roller floors and pallet system common to all other military transport platforms. One 2.000 pound, and possibly two 500-pound bombs could be accommodated on each 88" x 108" pallet, and a 767 freighter can carry 18 pallets. This would allow the use of these aircraft to augment the bomber fleet in "uncontested airspace" situations.

Additionally, exterior racks can be fitted that would allow this type of aircraft to deploy cruise missiles from standoff locations in situations where flying over the target is unsafe.

Here’s the best part. It is very expensive to maintain a fleet of dedicated bombers and a fleet of transport aircraft...and you need extra aircrew for the bombers, at substantial cost, even if no bombing is actually going on.

But a fleet of convertible aircraft can do all sorts of things...even provide airlift capacity in disaster relief situations...and, just as with the KC-45 tankers, they would be able to perform multiple missions on the same out-and-back flight (for example, a bomb run followed by a pick-up of cargo from a "regional" base)—something today’s bombers cannot do.

And with all that said, we come to the end.

What have we learned?

Even in times of peace, there is a place for having the capability to project force by bombing...and there are situations where the threat of imminent bombing can force desirable diplomatic results.

The Air Force is quickly coming to a point where we are unable to ensure that aircrews can safely perform missions in high-risk environments...and beyond that, the bombers currently used in low-risk environments are approaching 50 years of service life.

There are several options available, including a new dedicated bomber, expansion of the use of UAV and RPV aircraft, the use of improved cruise missiles, and the Bomber / Transport concept. It is possible to adopt several of these options together, but we would be unlikely to achieve all our military objectives with any single option.

Cost, the availability of supporting infrastructure (bandwidth...), and the public perception that we might be building robot killers from the movie "Terminator" will all affect the choices we make.

This is big-money stuff, once again, and we are going to need to be informed if we want to control where all this might be going—so I hope this creates discussion, and I hope we can refine the ideas along the way...and with any luck, maybe we can influence the process.

Originally posted to fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 03:05 AM PDT.

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specific discussions of weapons systems...

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Comment Preferences

  •  and we call upon you once again... (4+ / 0-)

    ...to think about how you want your government to operate.

    --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

    by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 03:06:18 AM PDT

  •  Besides the bandwidth (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant

    You forgot the lag time with satellite communication.  If you're going geosynchronous, you're going to have approximately a half of a second lag.  Lower satellites will give you less lag, but you'll have the problems of orbital hand-offs and coverage.  

    I find it amusing that the Air Force is still trying to come up with a retirement date for the B-52.  They've been thinking about it for over 30 years.  The problem is that, as one pilot put it, there's been, and will be, a need to drop a lot of bombs on a target - and the U.S. has only one plane that can do it.  

    •  that's the thing... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      crazyshirley2100

      ...about bomber/transport: in uncontested airspace, these aircraft could do similar work cheaper.

      on the one hand, the new engines would save on fuel (b-52s are preparing for re-engining for the same reason), and on the other, maintenance savings could be achieved if we bought the same airframe, engines, and avionics suite as the new tanker.

      that leaves the b-2 to be avionics upgraded and some uav/rpv component to be added for the most high-risk enterprises; but at that point we could be in decent shape...and when we aren't bombing something, the bomber/transport can still be used for freight.

      --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

      by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 04:01:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Only problem with that (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        fake consultant

        is that bombers are designed to "go harms way", while transport aircraft (even military ones) really aren't.  

        •  this is why i see a mix... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          crazyshirley2100

          ...of aircraft.

          there are situations where "penetrating bomber" is needed, and i would suggest that the b-2 could be made better...and with uav augmentation backed up by a supesonic cruise missile, we might be able to stretch this out till 2030, saving some of the cost of a "2018" bomber.

          as i suggest below, f-35 can replace the f-117 if needed for that application as well, if we need "small penetrating bomber".

          but ijn a number of situations we operate in uncontested airspace or from "standoff" range (which is the b-52's current mission--they do not enter heavily contested airspace anymore), and the transport/bomber would be, again, a potentially cheaper way to go than a new dedicated 2018 bomber designed for both contested and uncontested airspace.

          the 2030 bomber is projected to be a hypersonic aircraft, but that's a tale for another day.

          --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

          by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 04:25:04 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  the answer. f-22 and the f-35 jsf! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant
    •  actually, no. (0+ / 0-)

      the reason is twofold: one is payload, and the other is combat radius.

      the x-47a uav and the f-22 have almost exactly the same internal payload--and in order to take advantage of the f-22's stealth characteristics and maximum airspeed you cannot carry external stores.

      the f-35 is a larger aircraft, but it will never deliver large quantities of bombs...and it cannot loiter in uncontested airspace and await a "call for service" as easiy as a larger bomber can...and while it is suited for a penetration role, i would suggest it's a better replacement for the f-117 than the b-52--or b-1, for that matter.

      in any event, i suspect it would need to be augmented by some unmanned aircraft for "extreme" air defense penetration--and eventually for "extreme stealth" penetration...but i suspect that will be true in any event.

      --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

      by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 04:16:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Isn't the solution obvious? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant

    Take all the pork thrown at those fat cat scientists funded by the NIH to battle imaginary things such as cancer and give it to the Air Force to buy more gadgets to keep us safe from all very real evil doers out there who hate us.

    The beauty is, as we bomb more people - and fail to kill every single one of them - the survivors will hate us even more and will be even greater of a threat in the future.  So, thirty years from now - well, if you think the Air Force needs a big cash infusion now - well just wait! You're in for a big treat . . .

    •  i get that perspective... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy

      ...but in a world where the potential for diplomacy backed up by force exists (remember the darfur example?)...and there's also the potential benefits of distributing cancer drugs in third world countries as a diplomatic effort, not unlike the aids efforts today...and you add to that the benefits of a healthy american population...you get to a point where you could sell both sets of scientists to reluctant funders as national security assets...and the question then becomes, how do you prioritize what?

      a light bomber force backed up by more diplomacy, a medium force backed by less diplomacy, or a cold war posture?

      i like the light or medium option (not completely sure which), backed by things like drug giveaways and "coffee wahing station providing" and well-building and the sorts of things we used to do...which also provide national security on the cheap.

      on top of that, a bomber/transport option, in peacetime, reinforces the role of the us air force as the largest "surge" aircargo capacity available in times of disaster worldwide.

      i would submit this option actually could be used as a peace asset just as effectively as a war asset...a benefit we might want to consider carefully.

      --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

      by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 05:16:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Quite frankly, 9-11 make me considerably (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        fake consultant

        more cynical than I had been before that (which was already far above negligible).

        Heck, if you guys can't even protect the continental United States (to an outsider, that would seem to be the fundamental role of the Department of Defense), why should you be given untold billions for offensive capabilities to bomb anyone or anywhere in the world?  Just to make us here at home that much more unsafe in the future?

        And your concern for the people of Darfur is sweet and all, but - had pause there for a second due to uncontrollable giggling - when has the US Military been used for humanitarian purposes when the interests of US corporations have not been at stake?

        •  to answer your question: almost never... (0+ / 0-)

          ...(although we don't seem to be "corporatizing" bosnia at any rapid pace) but if we seek to take the reins of this "government" thing (which i presume '06 and '08 are all about), it means we have the opportunity to be different for a change.

          i am not the air force, but i am looking for ways to make it work better for taxpayers...which is why the transport/bomber thing appeals to me.

          this is not the first time i've proposed using military assets for "engaged" peacekeeping--last year i also proposed converting three small aircraft carriers into disaster response "peace ships"--and the logic was the same: that disaster relief and a "humanitarian aid" foreign policy might be cheaper ways to make friends (and become more secure) than bombing.

          but that said, from time to time things have to be bombed (or the real threat needs to be there), and we need to conduct our own "open source" cost/benefit analysis now...because the air force is already moving on their own path, without our input.

          --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

          by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 05:40:06 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Cut them up for scrap. n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fake consultant
    •  i would commend you... (0+ / 0-)

      ...to my answers above on this, but to summarize the comments:

      there are possibilities for peaceful uses of some of these aircraft--which might be a good investment.

      sometimes you really do have little choice but to either bomb things or demonstrate that you will if needed...and what we want to accomplish here is to find a more rational balance than today's.

      we will be sending aircrews (our families and friends) out in these aircraft...old or new...and we do not want an "unarmored humvee" situation ever again if we can help it.

      we do not have to go "all cold war" on the thing...but we do need to consider how to make smart investments, even for things we'd rather not have to buy...and no investment at all might not be the smartest one.

      --we are making enemies faster than we can kill them

      by fake consultant on Wed Jul 09, 2008 at 05:58:25 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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