Three generations of US strategic bombers in flight. The B-52
Three generations of US strategic bombers in flight. The B-52 "Stratofortress", top, with the B-1 "Lancer" and B-2 "Spirit". Picture: USAF

Stealth bombers to be scrapped

THEY've been icons of United States power for decades.

The intimidating, black, bat-winged stealth bomber - the B2 "Spirit".

The sleek, fast swing-wing B1 "Lancer".

Nothing in the world compares to the nearly 30-year-old B2. Only Russia has anything like the Lancer.

So why is the US Air Force seeking to spend so much of its $US156 billion for the next financial year on keeping its ever-shrinking fleet of 66-year-old B-52 "Stratofortress" in the air?

It's a secret.

The current US bomber fleet. The B-2
The current US bomber fleet. The B-2 "Spirit", top, with the B-52 "Stratofortress" and B-1 "Lancer". Picture: USAF

 

AGE WEARIES THEM

The US Air Force yesterday detailed its plans for the future. as part of its new budget bid.

It involves retiring two out of its three types of strategic bomber by 2030.

But the B-52 is somehow expected to stay in serve through the 2050s.

There are sound reasons.

The B2 "Spirit" is an incredibly expensive beast to keep flying. Every one of the 21 examples the USAF bought in the early 1990s was individually hand crafted. So spares are a serious problem.

The B1 "Lancers", while cheaper, are still complex pieces of machinery. They're some 15 years older. And of the 100 built, only 20 are still flying.

The flying dinosaur that is the B-52 was built in large numbers in a much simpler era. Out of the original 744, about 50 remain in service. There are plenty of spare parts laying around in aircraft "boneyards". And it is cheaper to update components as they - such as its electronics and engines.

"With an adequate sustainment and modernisation focus, including new engines, the B-52 has a projected service life through 2050, remaining a key part of the bomber enterprise well into the future," General Robin Rand says in a statement.

But does the US Air Force truly believe the B-52 is capable of doing the job of a B2 "Spirit"?

No.

There's another factor at play.

One the USAF won't talk about. At all.

The B-21 "Raider".

An artists rendering released by Northrop Grumman depicting a concept for the B-21
An artists rendering released by Northrop Grumman depicting a concept for the B-21 "Raider". With the early retirement of the existing US bomber fleet, much rests on whether or not this project is on time and on budget. Picture: Northrop Grumman

 

 

MONEY DOESN'T TALK

The US military has a credibility problem when it comes to weapons procurement.

Many projects - billions of dollars over budget - have simply had to be abandoned.

The F-35 stealth strike fighter is being billed as "to expensive to fail". Little wonder: it's the most costly - and delayed - military project in history.

And there are no fallback options.

After 20 years of gestation, it still has serious teething problems. They've even had to invent a new designation - "initial operational capacity (IOC)" - to justify putting incomplete aircraft into active service.

So is the solution to find new and better methods for project and risk management?

Perhaps.

Making how much is being spent on a project, how much progress is being made, and what problems it may face Top Secret also helps.

Such is the case with the next-generation bomber, Northrop Grumman's B-21 "Raider".

The US Air Force is only saying how much it hopes each aircraft will cost. It lists the major contractors. It won't reveal the value of the contracts it has issued.

The argument goes that contract cost details would allow competitors - such as China and Russia - to "extrapolate" details of the bombers design.

But it would also allow government oversight committees to figure out if they're getting what they're paying for - and how much they're actually paying.

Such things have been a major embarrassment to the USAF when it comes to the F-35.

But it insists everything about the B-21 is going exactly as intended, so there is no need to worry ...

A US Air Force B-1B Lancer , prepares for take off from Guam to conduct a bilateral mission with South Korean F-15 and Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-2 fighter jets in response to escalatory action by North Korea. Picture: AFP
A US Air Force B-1B Lancer , prepares for take off from Guam to conduct a bilateral mission with South Korean F-15 and Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-2 fighter jets in response to escalatory action by North Korea. Picture: AFP

 

RAIDING THE BANK

Very little has been revealed about the B-21.

It was sold to US Congress as a cost-controlled, standardised - and 'modular' - upgrade of the proven B-2 "Spirit" stealth design. Standardisation should make it cheaper. Modularity should make it easier to upgrade.

But the difference between what the sales brochure offers and what is eventually delivered is clearly evident in the saga of the F-35.

We know the current thinking - at least within the Trump White House Administration - is that the new B-21 is expected to carry long range, nuclear-capable cruise missiles. It's also supposed to be stealthy enough to fly anywhere in the world with impunity.

Before the secrecy clampdown, it was said the USAF plans to build about 100 of them at a unit cost of about $US550 million.

But the new $US156 billion budget is only to prepare for this envisaged future.

The only frontline product available to it at the moment is the F-35 strike fighter.

But its new budget also represents a shift in focus.

Some $US2.3 billion is being sunk into research and development. That's up from the $US2 billion being spent this year.

The budget also calls for money to re-engine the surviving B-52 fleet.

By the time the retire as planned in the 2050s, these aircraft will be a century old.

It's hoped the first B-21 will ease this veteran's burden by entering operation in the 2020s.

General Stephen Wilson, the Air Force's vice chief of staff, told the US House Armed Services Committee in March: "They just finished a preliminary design review recently ... It's making great progress, and we're pleased with the way it's headed."

 

A B-2 stealth bomber landing at a RAAF Base near Darwin while in Australia for military exercises. The mysterious bat-winged aircraft is set to be retired early. Picture: USAF
A B-2 stealth bomber landing at a RAAF Base near Darwin while in Australia for military exercises. The mysterious bat-winged aircraft is set to be retired early. Picture: USAF

 

PREPARING FOR TAKE-OFF

While the B1 and B2 is being phased out, the USAF says it actually wants to increase the number of combat-capable squadrons it operates from 55 to 58.

"If the force structure we have proposed is supported by the Congress, bases that have bombers now will have bombers in the future," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement. "They will be B-52s and B-21s."

This is important.

US Senators and members of Congress rely heavily upon the economic boost such bases give their electorates.

As such, the B1 and B2 will continue to receive enough funding to keep them flying.

"Once sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be incrementally retired. Delivery and retirement timelines are dependent on the B-21 production and delivery schedules," she says.

The past 30 years have involved the US in a series of 'small wars' against vastly inferior forces. Iraq. Serbia. Afghanistan.

Now the Pentagon is having to address the return of 'great power' Cold-War style competition. China is surging in its combat technology and capability. Russia, while weaker than it was, is sounding increasingly bellicose.

This is why it asked for a 6.6 per cent increase in its budget.

Along with more F-35As, it wants - in the short term - a fleet of new KC-46 tankers to give the F-35 the range it needs to be effective.

But winding down the B-1 and B-2 fleets means everything now hinges on the speedy success of the B-21 project when it comes to ultra-long range, strategic power projection.

"Modernising and recapitalising our bomber force is absolutely central to the recently released National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review," the USAF statement says. "Our bomber force allows the commander in chief to hold targets at risk anywhere on the globe with unparalleled range and our most diverse payloads ...

"The B-21 will eventually become the backbone of the US strategic bomber fleet and serve as a visible, flexible deterrent to adversaries and assure US partners and allies."

If all goes to plan.

But US Congress and taxpayers won't know if it is.

That's Top Secret.



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