Tag Archives: B-2 bomber

The B-3 Nuclear Capable Bomber

In a 1994 live fire exercise near Point Mugu, California, a B-2 drops 47 individual 500 lb (230 kg)-class Mark 82 bombs, which is more than half of a B-2's total ordnance payload.. Image from wikipedia

The US Air Force wants to to build a new long-range strike bomber. The B-3, as it is likely to be named, will be a nuclear-capable aircraft designed to penetrate the most sophisticated air defences. The contract [that would be signed by the  US Air Force and  a weapons company] itself will be worth $50 billion-plus in revenues to the successful bidder, and there will be many billions of dollars more for work on design, support and upgrades. The plan is to build at least 80-100 of the planes at a cost of more than $550m each.

The stakes could not be higher for at least two of the three industrial heavyweights… On one side is a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin; on the other, Northrop Grumman. The result could lead to a shake-out in the defence industry, with one of the competitors having to give up making combat aircraft for good.  After the B-3 contract is awarded, the next big deal for combat planes—for a sixth-generation “air-dominance fighter” to replace the F-22 and F-18 Super Hornet—will be more than a decade away. So Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, an aviation-consulting firm, believes it will be hard for the loser to stay in the combat-aircraft business. ..

Usually in a contest of this kind, particularly this close to its end, a clear favourite emerges. Industry-watchers rate this one as still too close to call. That is partly because the degree of secrecy surrounding what is still classified as a “black programme” has remained high. Only the rough outlines of the aircraft’s specification have been revealed. It will be stealthy, subsonic, have a range of around 6,000 miles (9,650km) and be able to carry a big enough payload to destroy many targets during a single sortie. …

The target for the plane to come into operation is the mid-2020s—if possible, even earlier. In part this is because of fast-emerging new threats and in part because the average age of America’s current bomber fleet, consisting of 76 geriatric B-52s, 63 B-1s and 20 B-2s, is 38 years. Keeping such ancient aircraft flying in the face of metal fatigue and corrosion is a constant struggle: just 120 are deemed mission-ready. None of these, except the B-2s, can penetrate first-rate air defences without carrying cruise missiles—and the missiles are of little use against mobile targets.

In the kind of one-sided wars that America and its allies fought in the years after the September 11th 2001 attacks, such deficiencies were not a problem. But during that period China, in particular, has invested heavily in “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. These include thousands of precision-guided missiles of increasing range that could threaten America’s bases in the Western Pacific, and any carriers sailing close enough to shore to launch their short-range tactical aircraft….A new long-range bomber that can penetrate the most advanced air defences is thus seen as vital in preserving America’s unique ability to project power anywhere in the world.

Excerpts from Military aircraft: Battle joined, Economist, May 2, 2015, at 55.

Cloak-and-Dagger Drones: the next nuclear bombers

Deep in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by tiers of barbed-wire fence, the nation’s largest defense contractors work in secrecy designing and building the latest military aircraft at Air Force Plant 42.  The military’s top weapons buyer quietly visited the Palmdale facility this month to talk with leading aerospace executives about plans to build a fleet of radar-evading bombers that the military hopes to have ready for action by the mid-2020s.  The plane would be the first long-range bomber built in the U.S. since the last of the 21 bat-winged B-2 stealth bombers by Northrop Grumman Corp. rolled off the assembly lines at Plant 42 more than a decade ago… Now on the Pentagon wish list is a proposed fleet of 80 to 100 nuclear-capable bombers that could operate with or without a pilot in the cockpit.

Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. These companies are expected to vie for the estimated $55-billion contract that is expected to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California’s aerospace industry…This program may also have a broad effect on the mom-and-pop machine shops and other contractors that could be called upon to make parts for the bomber, said Fred Downey, a national security analyst with the Aerospace Industries Assn., an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.

The B-2 fleet now numbers 20 — one crashed in Guam in 2008. The Air Force also has 66 B-1 bombers, built in the 1980s, and 85 B-52 bombers, which were built in the 1960s and modified for use today.  “The Air Force believes it’s overdue for an upgrade,” Harrison said, adding that funding for the new bomber program could already be underway through the Air Force’s $12.6-billion classified, or “black,” budget for weapons research and developmentBuilding bombers under the black budget is not unprecedented. The U.S. government didn’t lift the veil on the B-2 program until a decade after it had begun, revealing one of the largest weapons development efforts since the Manhattan Project produced the atomic bomb in the 1940s.

The Air Force and Northrop went to great lengths to conceal even the smallest detail of the B-2 program. Many suppliers had no idea they were making parts for the bomber. The government created dummy companies that ordered the parts, which were often picked up in the middle of the night by unmarked trucks. Northrop said that at its height, the B-2 program involved about 40,000 employees at aerospace facilities all over the country, including about 15,000 in the Southland.

This time, “the cloak-and-dagger should be even better,” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. “The government is not going to want to advertise a program like this.”  Gates said the new bomber would be “using proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity.”  Such comments have led many defense analysts to believe the future bomber will look a lot like the stealthy jet-powered drones that are currently flying from Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed.

Northrop has a drone, dubbed X-47B, that is designed to carry laser-guided bombs and be launched from an aircraft carrier. Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, called the “Beast of Kandahar,” was developed at Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works and reportedly was used during the raid at Osama bin Laden’s compound. Both were built at Plant 42.   Boeing’s fighter-size Phantom Ray drone is undergoing test flights at Edwards Air Force Base, just north of Palmdale.  “All of them look like baby B-2s,” said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book about robotic warfare. “They have key stealth design features, which allow them to penetrate enemy air defenses.”  Although the program is still far from a certainty, Singer believes that fielding a new bomber is crucial. “It’s a national security concern.”

Excerpt, W.J. Henniganm,Pentagon weapons buyer quietly visits California to discuss bomber planes, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2011