- The United States' new long-range strike bomber aircraft will combine existing technologies in one model to make the U.S. bomber fleet more effective and versatile.
- The move to bring all U.S. bombers under a single, separate command will raise their status and make them a key component of the U.S. strategy to project power worldwide.
- The networking technology used in contemporary fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles will ease the integration of the latest bombers with the rest of the U.S. Air Force's network-centric warfare capabilities.
The U.S. Air Force is developing a new bomber that promises to secure the U.S. advantage in modern warfare. The next-generation long-range strike bomber, recently awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. for development, will not be designed to rely on as yet undeveloped technologies, as is so often the case with new aircraft and weaponry. Instead, the aircraft will combine and fully exploit existing advanced stealth technology, integrated software, ordnance and countermeasures. In effect, the military is consolidating the best of its technology in one package. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force has decided to aggregate all of its bombers under a single, unified command, clearing the way to making bombers a more central part of its operations. Thus the new long-range strike bomber is poised to become a central pillar of the U.S. strategy to project its power throughout the globe.
Maintaining an Edge in Conventional Warfare
The B-2, the latest bomber model currently in use by the U.S. Air Force, was developed nearly 20 years ago. Since that time, newer aircraft have incorporated the significant technological advancements that have been made since the B-2's inception. Some of this technology has made its way into the United States' B-52, B-1B and B-2 bomber fleets, but the new bomber model will bring all of these technologies together in one comprehensive design, making fuller use of each to better meet modern strategic and tactical needs. At the same time, the new bomber is designed to be especially easy to upgrade as more advanced technology emerges.
The aircraft would essentially be able to go anywhere in the world and remain in the air for as long as its ample ordnance lasts.
The next-generation bomber comes not a moment too soon. Although the United States' current bombers will last for some time, they are rapidly losing their competitive edge against the aircraft developed by rapidly strengthening military powers such as China and Russia. And while the bulk of the current U.S. bomber force will have to be replaced by 2037, the U.S. Air Force expects Chinese technological advances to overtake the most modern B-2 bomber much sooner, perhaps as early as 2020. The introduction of the new long-range strike bomber — and in particular, its more advanced stealth technology — will therefore be critical to maintaining the U.S. advantage in conventional combat operations.
The Network-Centric Approach
Apart from stealth technology, the new bomber also features modern sensor packages that provide a clearer picture of the battlefield. Sensors of this type have already been installed in several other U.S. military aircraft, and a range of tests by the U.S. Air Force have shown they can help accurately and independently identify and engage targets. During Operation Resultant Fury in 2004, perhaps one of the most significant of these tests, B-52 and B-1 bombers were able to sink multiple moving maritime targets. These demonstrations suggest that in an actual combat situation, aircraft could detect, engage and destroy enemy vessels with precision-guided munitions. And the advanced sensor packages that make this possible are an important part of the design for the new U.S. long-range strike bomber. They give the United States a technological edge that could become even more important in future conflicts. If, for instance, conflict arises with China in the Pacific someday, technology that allows the U.S. military to effectively strike maritime targets will become a powerful tool for the United States.
Operation Resultant Fury also publicly tested the U.S. ability to conduct "network-centric warfare," an important concept in modern warfare dictating that countries should attempt to translate their information advantage into a competitive edge on the battlefield. To do so often requires broad task forces comprising several different moving parts that work in concert with each other, connected by an advanced and reliable network. The new bomber's sensor packages could help make that happen. In the 2004 test, bombers coordinated with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes, command and control aircraft, refueling tankers and fighter jets. Though it was the bombers that ultimately delivered the decisive blow that completed the mission, the real feat of the exercise was the fact that the military was able to successfully integrate information collected from sensors on such a broad array of platforms. Pulling all this information together allowed surveillance and command platforms to identify and track numerous mobile maritime targets and lead the striking aircraft directly to them.
The advanced sensor packages on the new long-range strike bomber, then, will likely enable effective coordination with other vehicles during joint operations. The new bomber's network will be integrated with already existing platforms, including a wide variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, which will make cooperation even smoother. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force's broader objective is to develop its network-centric warfare capabilities in its other aircraft, including the F-35 fighter jet, effectively creating a wider web of sensors for the new bomber to integrate into. The easier it is for all these platforms to interact, the more effective each one becomes in the long run.
An Asymmetric Advantage
The latest bomber model could also create significant gains for the United States in asymmetric warfare. Bombers can spend a great deal of time flying over potential targets while carrying substantial amounts of ordnance. This offers a distinct advantage in conflicts against insurgencies and actors such as the Islamic State, which are often weaker than states in terms of traditional military power. For example, in the final months of 2014 and at the start of 2015, U.S. B-1B bombers played an important role in the battle to retake the Syrian city of Kobani from the Islamic State. With the help of refueling tankers, the bombers spent eight hours over the city expending their munitions in individual, precision-guided strikes against Islamic State fighters as they emerged. The long-range strike bomber will seek to improve upon these capabilities, both with its advanced sensor packages and with its potential to develop further into an unmanned platform. The aircraft would essentially be able to go anywhere in the world and remain in the air for as long as its ample ordnance lasts.
With its various advantages in assymetric and maritime warfare, the new long-range srike bomber will play a central role in the United States' projection of power abroad. Indeed, this has already been partially reflected in the recent restructuring of the U.S. Air Force. Since April, the United States has drawn all of its bomber aircraft under a single umbrella: the Global Strike Command. Prior to the reorganization, the Global Strike Command controlled nuclear-armed bomber aircraft and nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. The remaining bombers reported to the Air Combat Command. Now, the Global Strike Command will be able to move beyond its nuclear role by assuming control over all long-range striking capability. The move to place all strategic bombers under their own separate command will likely raise the profile of the U.S. bomber force, paving the way for it to emerge as a distinct pillar of U.S. military might.