Northrop Grumman photo
By Kris Osborn - Managing Editor - Warrior Maven
The Air Force’s recently released Bomber Vector calls for wide range of new technologies for the fleet - to include newer stealth materials, faster computer processors, upgraded weapons and new sensors to ensure the force will still be able to launch attacks in more advanced, future high-threat scenarios spanning into the 2050s.
The new Air Force bomber fleet plan, released in conjunction with the service’s 2019 Budget request, also seeks a larger bomber fleet and maps a modernization and production trajectory for the introduction of the emerging B-21 Raider in the mid-2020s.
“The Air Force’s Bomber Vector established the overarching future planning guidance for the Air Force bomber force. The force must include both standoff and stand-in capabilities, hinging on use of stealth and other technologies,” Maj. William Russell, Air Force official, told Warrior Maven in a written statement.
While the fleet size and force configuration details outlined in the vector have received much attention, a lesser discussed - but potentially more significant - element of the new plan centers on the integration of a new generation of bomber technologies intended to both inform the B-21 and launch a massive overhaul of the existing fleet of B-52, B-2 and B-1B bombers.
Also, the advent of new technologies introduces new combat tactics expected to take center stage in coming years. This includes things like artificial intelligence being used to process and organize ISR data, manned-unmanned teaming involving a more extensive use of attack and reconnaissance drones as well as longer-range air dropped weapons. All of these fast-evolving innovations can quickly bring new tactics, as longer-standoff ranges enable bombers to potentially achieve a strategic advantage through improved positioning and lower-risk flight plans.
With the vector, the Air Force hopes to sustain its fleet of bombers such that they remain capable of attacking near-peer adversaries if needed, such as Russia or China, known to possess advanced air defenses, stealth fighters, long-range attack weapons and other kinds of anti-access/area-denial technologies designed to counter stealth bomber attacks.
Upgraded and next-generation stealth technology will, according to Air Force developers, figure prominently in coming decades; the Bomber Vector plan calls for the service to progressively phase-out B-1s and B-2 bombers as the new B-21 comes online in the next decade.
“The advantages of stealth technology will be an essential tool for any aircraft operating in or around the reach of advanced air defenses for the foreseeable future. We will continue to research additional technologies to enhance or replace stealth technology in response to increasing threat capabilities,” Russell said. -- To Read Warrior Maven's Previous Report on the B-21 and Next-Generation Stealth CLICK HERE --
More technically advanced adversaries with long range sensors, electronic warfare and radar technologies will require the Air Force to operate and sustain combat missions over much greater distances, Russell explained.
“This will require a robust logistical backbone capable of delivering key commodities (i.e., fuel, spare parts, and weapons), even while under attack,” he added.
Air Force Pursues a 175 Aircraft Bomber Fleet
A report by Air Force Magazine quotes a portion of the text from a draft version of the Bomber Vector, specifically citing the extent of desired bomber fleet growth.
“The service sees growth in the bomber fleet from 157 aircraft today to at least 175, in order to provide the capability required by regional commanders,” the draft says, as quoted in Air Force Magazine-(Story here).
Gen. Robin Rand, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, expressed concerned about the massive drop in the service’s bomber fleet size since the Gulf War.
“At the end of Desert Storm in 1991 we had 290 total bombers. Today that force has dropped to 157 bombers…. That is a 46 percent decrease in our bomber force while we have conducted continuous combat operations,” Rand said in an Air Force statement.
Rand went on to cite the scope of Air Force combat missions over the last few decades, including Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Odyssey Dawn and Inherent Resolve, among others. Air Force Statement here
New Weapons, Sensors & Coating for the B-2
Although the Air Force’s 20 B-2 bombers will retire in coming years as they B-21 arrives, the service is nonetheless accelerate a massive overhaul of the bomber – giving it new weapons, computers materials and sensors.
The B-2 is now getting a new computer processor which adds a new Integrated Processor Unit to the existing “B-2 Flight Management Control Processor,” service leaders said. The upgrade provides more than one thousand times the processor throughput, memory and speed, senior service officials told Warrior Maven.
This ongoing move closely aligns with what Russell described as a new Air Force “data” focused philosophy. Sensors, weapons and communications technologies are evolving at an alarming pace given advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning overhaul modern computer tech. --- To Read Warrior Maven's Previous Report on the New B-2 Computer CLICK HERE --
“The new philosophy we are using to ensure we have ISR dominance in the future is to design outward from the data we need instead of from the platform inward. Designing outward from the data requirements is information age think and is proven to be a superior approach,” Russell said.
The B-2 is also being upgraded with a new technology called the “Defensive Management System Modification” program which will better enable the stealth bomber to identify the location of enemy air defense systems – so as to elude them.
The aircraft is also getting new composite hot trailing edge (HTE) skin, to be added behind the exhaust nozzles on the surface of the bomber. It is made up of a durable, high-temperature material more resistant to degradation from thermal and vibroacoustic stress, service developers stated. --- To Read Warrior Maven's Previous Story on the New Materials for the B-2 CLICK HERE ---
“The Polyimide material presently used for HTE degrades quickly in this operational environment; as the incessant exposure to heat and engine exhaust exceeds its capabilities, the material cracks and the resin disintegrates,” an Air Force statement said.
Engineers working on stealth technology designs often try to reduce the “heat signature” or infrared/thermal sensor detectability of the aircraft. The more heat a bomber gives off in flight, the more enemy sensors and radar are likely to detect it. Therefore, it seems evident that a material less prone to degradation or disintegration at high- temperatures might likely lessen the heat signature emitted from decay or erosion taking place on the aircraft.
In coming years, the B-2 will be armed with next generation digital nuclear weapons such as the B-61 Mod 12 with a tail kit and a Long Range Stand-Off weapon or, LRSO, an air-launched, guided nuclear cruise missile, service officials said. The LRSO will replace the Air Launched Cruise Missile, or ALCM, which right now is carried by the B-52 bomber, officials said.
Alongside its nuclear arsenal, the B-2 will carry a wide range of conventional weapons to include precision-guided 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, 5,000-pound JDAMs, Joint Standoff Weapons, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and GBU 28 5,000-pound bunker buster weapons, among others.
B-52 Will Fly to 2050
The technical structure and durability of the B-52 airframes in the Air Force fleet are described as extremely robust and able to keep flying well into the 2040s and beyond – so the service is taking steps to ensure the platform stays viable by receiving the most current and effective avionics, weapons and technologies, Air Force weapons developers tell Warrior.
Engineers are now equipping all 76 of the Air Force B-52s with digital data-links, moving-map displays, next-generation avionics, new radios and an ability to both carry more weapons internally and integrate new, high-tech weapons as they emerge, service officials said.
“The Air Force will update the B-52 fleet and fund development of replacement engines,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a service statement. -- To Read Warrior Maven's Previous Report on B-52 Upgrades - CLICK HERE --
The 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade, or IWBU, will allow the B-52 to internally carry up to eight of the newest “J-Series” bombs in addition to carrying six on pylons under each wing.
B-52s have previously been able to carry JDAM weapons externally, but with the IWBU the aircraft will be able to internally house some of the most cutting edge precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles. Having an increased internal weapons bay capability also affords an opportunity to increase fuel-efficiency by removing bombs from beneath the wings and reducing drag.
The first increment of IWBU integrates an internal weapons bay ability to fire a laser-guided JDAM. A second increment, to finish by 2022, will integrate more modern or cutting-edge weapons such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, JASSM Extended Range (ER) and a technology called Miniature Air Launched Decoy, or MALD. A MALD-J “jammer” variant, which will also be integrated into the B-52, can be used to jam enemy radar technologies as well, service developers say.
More Warrior Maven Stealth Reporting