This article is part of a series on Upgrading America’s Nuclear Triad.
Air Combat Command currently operates three weapons systems as strategic bombers: the workhorse B-52H, the B-1B, and the B-2A.
The B-52 Stratofortress was designed by Boeing in the early 1950s. The B-36 Peacemaker and the B-47 Stratojet were not capable of carrying the late model hydrogen bombs which were large and heavy, affectionately dubbed “big boys” by bomber crews of the time. The B-52 beat out Northrop’s flying wing YB-49 jet bomber to carry the new large bombs, first entered service in 1955, with the final airframe was constructed in 1962. Of the 744 B-52s built for the US Air Force, only 94 remain in service and 76 are active. They are in the process of being upgraded to continue operating until approximately 2040, but recall that these air frames will be at least 80 years old at that time. The B-52 has many advantages: it can carry a large and variable payload of 32,000 kg (70,000 lbs), the capability of adapting to include new technologies, and a long operational history. The shear age of these air frames and their lack of modern design are their only major disadvantages.
The B-1B was designed in the late 1960s and early 70s in an effort to bring the bomber force into the supersonic age. The B-1 Lancer features a variable wing geometry capability that allows the plane to take off and land at low speed then sweep its wings back for high speed flight. Capable of reaching speeds upwards of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) and carrying a payload of nearly 57,000 kg (125,000 lbs) the B-1B is a formidable bomber in both nuclear and conventional service. The B-1 was cancelled by President Carter in favour of the cruise missile. President Reagan, however, requested that 100 of these be built early in his first term; of these, 63 remain in service. A programme is likewise under way to extend the life of this plane.
Last, but certainly not least, is the B-2A Spirit, better known as the Stealth bomber. The B-2 was developed in the 1980s to be virtually invisible to most forms of detection, the B-2 fulfilled Northrop’s dream of the flying wing bomber. It is a subsonic aircraft with a smaller payload then its predecessors holding 23,000 kg (50,000 lbs). The most modern of the current bomber force, the 20 B-2s in service today were built in the 1990s.
The Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB)
The Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) programme that the Air Force recently launched is seeking its next generation bomber. The B-3 Patriot (a possible name of my own choosing) should generate an airframe ready for delivery in the mid-20s. If a truly effective programme is sought, the Air Force and private partners might consider teaming up as the two primary builders of submarines did for the Virginia class project. If Boeing, Northrop-Grumman, and Lockheed-Martin pulled together, they could each contribute to the design, and share the profits of building the aircraft.
The B-3 should be designed so as to bring together all of the virtues of its immediate predecessors. It should have the longevity, upgradeability, and mission variability of the B-52, the high speed and large payload of the B-1, and some stealth capabilities like the B-2. Utilizing the flying wing airframe design will generate a more efficient aircraft with large wings for fuel tanks. The flying wing airframe is also stealthier, in that it presents a smaller cross section to detection devices. While stealth is a significant advantage, the aircraft need not sacrifice much for stealth. There are, after all, means of confusing, jamming, or otherwise neutralizing detection devices as well as simply being mostly invisible to them. Speed is also an advantage, but again no major sacrifices need to be made for it. The B-3 should be stealthy, capable of achieving speeds of about mach 1.5, for a payload of about 45,000 kg (100,000 lbs), and should be designed for a long lifespan. Naturally, every means of reducing costs in the short-term and over the operational life of each airframe will be valuable.
About 100 B-3s should be built to begin entering service circa 2025 with the last to be delivered in the late 30s. The B-52s can be entirely phased out in favour of the B-3. About 30 B-1s and the entire force of B-2s should be kept in service as well, providing ample capability for both strategic and conventional missions. These more modern aircraft will be designed to answer our bomber needs for the rest of the century and thus save the cost of developing new aircraft down the road.
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