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:
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.