Wednesday, June 04, 2003

New US Stealth Bomber -- Jane's

The specialist press is reporting that the USAF has a new Stealth Bomber. Space Daily reports that Janes Defense Weekly:

published what it said were exclusive images of a radar-evading bomber being developed by the United States. Jane's said the pictures were of scale mock-ups of a long-range strike aircraft being developed by US firm Lockheed Martin to eventually replace a series of similar "stealth" craft currently in service. The new plane would have a range of some 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles) without refuelling and be capable of carrying between six and 18 tonnes of ordnance depending on the version, the magazine said.

The report is remarkable for what it does not convey. The key questions are: 1) is the bomber manned? 2) does it use low visual observable technology? What is it's strategic purpose?

Just as the F-22 Raptor is now being regarded as the last manned fighter, the B-2 Spirit was widely regarded as the end of the line for the piloted bomber. The wave of the future was supposed to be heralded by the Boeing X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, whose prototype is now flying. However, the X-45 is apparently sized to replace tactical platforms like the F-15 Strike Eagle. The aircraft reported by Janes is in the strategic heavy bomber class. One of its principal features is the ability to fly across the Atlantic (3,000 miles) with an 18 ton bomb load. This means that it will not need to refuel close to target. Air-to-air refueling compromises the stealth mission of a bomber. While the enemy may not be able to detect the bomber, it can see the tanker. Hence, the need for a lot of internal fuel.

The other unanswered question is whether the new bomber is visually "invisible"; that is, undetectable by the naked eye and infrared devices at tactical ranges. The Boeing Phantom Works was also known to be investigating the so-called Bird of Prey technology, whose name is derived from a science fictional spacecraft from the Star Trek series. Visual invisibility will mean the ability of USAF aircraft to attack targets by day, instead of having to await darkness or bad weather, as is the case with the B-2 Spirit and F-117 Nighthawk. Boeing actually built the Bird of Prey as a black operation more than 10 years ago and declassified the program after deriving the test data.

Bird of Prey

But the most interesting question of all is why? The obvious answer, of course, is to replace the old B-52Hs, which are now reaching the limit of their modernization and tactical usefulness. Yet the USAF rarely introduces a major new aircraft type without linking it to a major development in doctrine and strategy. This new, as yet unspecified aircraft is envisioned to fill a role the general public doesn't quite understand -- yet. The fact that it has reached the mock up stage means that enough people in the services believe in its mission. What that mission is, will soon become clear.