Monday, December 14, 2009

Has the QDR process approved a new bomber?

By David Small
ROA Director of Communications and Air Force Affairs

Reuters reported last week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came out with plans to fund a next generation bomber.

This announcement is after he cancelled plans last April to continue the project, wanting the quadrennial defense review to look at the need for one. Such a move signifies that perhaps the QDR process has endorsed the need for a new long range strike platform.

Gates was quoted in Reuters saying, “We are probably going to proceed with a long-range strike initiative coming out of the Quadrennial Defense Review and various other reviews going on.”

He also said the department is possibly looking into an unmanned platform for this capability, which is interesting given the recent confirmation of the Air Force that they’ve been flying a new stealth remotely piloted vehicle called the RQ-170 Sentinel a.k.a “Beast of Kandahar.” The RQ-170 was developed by Lockheed Martin’s secret Skunk Works and has deployed to Afghanistan. Perhaps the missions of the U-2 and the B-2 will combine onto a single platform?

ROA staffers were invited to a live audience taping of Defense News recently where Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance joined his service counterparts to discuss remotely piloted technologies. There, I asked the question about future technologies affecting the next generation bomber requirement. Gen. Deptula’s response involved the ability for an aircraft to morph into whatever the mission required.

His answer sounded a bit like the movie Transformers, but a brief Google search found that the technology is being researched.

According to the aeronautics department of Purdue Univ. in a report posted to the Defense Technical Information Center, “Morphing aircraft are multi-role aircraft that change their external shape substantially to adapt to a changing mission environment during flight. This creates superior system capabilities not possible without morphing shape changes. The objective of morphing activities is to develop high performance aircraft with wings designed to change shape and performance substantially during flight to create multiple-regime, aerodynamically-efficient, shape-changing aircraft.”

The concept is not new, but future iterations will go beyond what is currently out there in variable sweep wings, retractable landing gear, landing and take-off flaps and variable incidence noses (think Concorde).

The new bomber will cost between $10 and $40 billion to develop according to quotes from both Secretary Gates and think tanks. Next year’s Pentagon spending bill will likely include a request for $1 billion to get the process started as reported by Reuters. Such a request follows language in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act to support the development of next generation long range strike technologies.

The news brings welcome funding to the critical aerospace industrial base, which will be analyzed further by ROA’s Officer Magazine Air Force column in the February 2010 edition.

The last active bomber production line in the United States was the B-2 Spirit, which first flew in 1989 and shut its production line down in 1997. It has been more than a decade since the United States has had a bomber line open. At the time the B-2 line closed, it was determined that there were no unique features of the line and hence little risk in shutting it down. The new bomber will have a gap of over ten years in technology and industry expertise in building a bomber, however much of the lessons learned over those ten years can be garnered from the fighter production lines still open (although not for much longer).

ROA maintains a legislative resolution to support the fielding of a new bomber. Read that resolution here.

Before Sec. Gates halted the program in April, the new bomber had a goal of 2018 for fielding a first aircraft. Nothing has been said publicly about a new goal date.

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