Wednesday, September 15, 2010

B-3 on the horizon?

Sept. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Air Force expects to start working on a new bomber in the next budget, the first such warplane since Northrop Grumman Corp.’s B-2 Spirit was developed almost three decades ago.

“It’s my conviction that the nation benefits from a long- range strike capability,” General Norton Schwartz, chief of staff for the Air Force, said today at the annual Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

The service plans to keep using its B-2, B-1 and B-52 bombers while working on a “new platform,” Schwartz said. The program could initially produce a “modest” aircraft that eventually would incorporate more-advanced capabilities, Schwartz said.

Adding a new bomber would sharpen the competition for Pentagon dollars as Defense Secretary Robert Gates moves to slow a “gusher” of spending since 2001, capping annual growth at the inflation rate. The bat-wing-shaped B-2, which went into development in 1981, costs about $1.2 billion each.

Such expenses have helped spur upgrades to current models decades after they began flying. Boeing Co.’s first B-52 entered service in 1954, and the B-1, developed by a company now owned by Boeing, became operational in the mid-1980s.

Budget Talks

Discussions are under way about the scope and budget for a new bomber program, Schwartz said. He said he hoped the proposal would be included as part of the 2012 budget that will be presented to Congress in February.

The Air Force is trying to exercise discipline in the specifications it will seek in the new bomber in light of budget constraints, Schwartz said.

A new long-range strategic bomber would fill a “significant gap” in an Air Force fleet now geared more toward shorter-range jet fighters, according to Mark Gunzinger, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington-based defense-research group.

As a first step, the U.S. must begin developing a fleet of at least 100 “optionally manned planes” that can carry a payload of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) and fly as far as 5,000 nautical miles, Gunzinger said in an interview.

Such a plane may cost as much as $500 million each and take about 15 years to develop, said Gunzinger, the author of a study published today titled “Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike.”

Gunzinger said that plane should be supplemented by an unmanned bomber that can fly off of U.S. aircraft carriers and go 1,500 nautical miles; a long-range cruise missile; non- nuclear ballistic missiles that can strike targets within hours; and planes that can disable enemy radar.

These elements would be a new “family of systems” enabling the U.S. military to strike targets deep in countries like Iran and China, Gunzinger said.

--Editors: Ed Dufner, Stephen West

RELATED (dated) Article: B-3 and Beyond. This is what strategic thinkers were imagining ten years ago - Steve Douglass

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