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Monday, February 17, 2020, 10:40 (GMT+7)
On the U.S strategic bomber program

Besides bombing, strategic bombers can also launch air to surface long range missiles. It is anticipated that in the coming decades, the U.S will still be the world leader in strategic bombers given their ongoing plans for this aircraft.

Changes in the orientations

During the Cold War, the U.S maintained a large number of strategic bombers, peaking at 1,526 in 1960. After  Operation  Desert Storm in 1991, the number of bombers in service in the USAF was reduced to 290 and gradually decreased to 158 as at present, including 76 B-52H , 62 B-1B and 20 B-2A, which entered into service in 1961, 1985 and 1993, respectively.

There have been great changes in the modernization of the U.S strategic bombers. In the past, USAF decided to modernize all of their fleets. Accordingly, the B-1B and B-52H bombers would be made active until 2040 and B-2A will be in service until 2058. However, according to plan approved by the U.S Congress in 2017, when the new generation of strategic bomber namely B21- Raider become active in 2026, the USAF will begin to exclude the B-1B and B-2A from their strength which is much earlier than the previous plan. The last B-2A and B-1B bombers in service are scheduled for 2032 and 2036, respectively. The main reason for the decrease in the number of those strategic bombers is cost-effectiveness, as technical maintenance for all of them will be very costly. Therefore, the extension of only B-52H bombers and removal of two other types will save an amount of USD 38.5 billion. This is not only enough for the modernization of the B-52H bombers but can also cover the facility cost of B-21 Raiders.

Another reason for the USAF’s removal of B-1B and B-2A is their mission profiles. Accordingly, the combat-readiness of these two types of bombers is much lower than that of B-52H with 50% of the formers compared to 80% of the latter. In addition, the utilization of all functions of B-52H is 60% compared to 40% of B-1B and 35% of B-2A. The average flying costs of B-52H and B-1B are USD 70,000/hour while that of B-2A mounts up to USD 150,000/hour.

The B-21 Raider strategic bomber

According to the orientation for development, by 2050, USAF will acquire at least 100 new B-21 Raiders and 76 upgraded B-52Hs. The modernization of B-52H will focuses on their technology, weapon systems, and some other systems to enhance their combat level, data link and smart ammunition. Thereby, their role and mission will be widened and they will be deployed actively in larger theatres in the future. Also according to the U.S Department of Defense, the modernization of B-52H will be divided into two phases. First phase will focus on electronic systems, combat systems and weapon systems. To date, 8 B-52H bombers have been equipped with combat network communications technology (CONECT) allowing for easy exchange of data and information with other aircraft. The information display system on the B-52H will also be replaced with Liquid Crystal Displays with high resolution. USAF will replace the AN/APQ-166 mechanical scanned radar system by the new active electronic scanned array (AESA) one which improves the detectability and combat capability as well as the data link and electronic suppression for B-52H. After upgrading, B-52H bombers will be equipped with special gun pods capable of carrying 8 joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) in their cabin and 6 bombs under their wings. The second phase is more important as 8 outdated TF33 turbofan engines will be replaced and, at the same time, 13 studies will be conducted for choosing the replacement of the engines for B-52H. The new engines must be at the same size, weight and capacity so that upgrade requirements of the aircraft hull and maintenance cost will be minimized while fuel efficiency will be increased by at least 20%. A budget of USD 727.5 million has been allocated on the development of the new engine which will be tested on the two B-52H bombers in 2022. By 2026, USAF will acquire 74 more new engines and finish the replacement of engine for 76 B-52H aircraft by 2034. However, B-52H still has one Achilles heel which is its incapability to stealth like the B-2A and B-1B. That’s why USAF still needs to develop new generation strategic stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, in replacement for the B-2A and the B-1B.

Focusing on the development of new generations strategic bombers

The U.S. Department of Defense stated that ballistic missile defence system and long range offensive capability are the two most important elements for the U.S to effectively deal with the anti-access and area denial (A2AD) strategy. In the future, with the advancement of science and technology, the U.S wishes to acquire small, compact, high accuracy weapon systems but with huge destructive power like nuclear weapons. Therefore, a new generation strategic bomber capable of defence and nuclear and conventional offence will be of great advantageous. This is why the U.S has long pursued the development of a new generation strategic bomber which is capable of penetrating all defence systems to conduct offensive operations onto anywhere in the world. Prior to that, on 9th September 2016, the USAF announced the concept of the new generation long range strategic bomber, namely the B-21 Raider. This is the first type of strategic bombers developed by the U.S since the end of the Cold War. They are developed by Northrop Grumman. First pilot flight is projected in 2021 and by 2026 they will be put into service.

B-21 Raider is designed to be a manned strategic stealth bomber with close to the speed of sound, two engines and flying-wing shape in order to reduce radar cross-section, enhance its stealth capability, its offensive capability and its survivability. Besides, the B-21 Raider has payload inside. It is coated with a new material which enhances its stealth capability. As such, B-21 Raider will be the second generation strategic stealth bomber of the USAF but it has more breakthrough technology and it is more convenient for maintenance than the B-2A.

The B-21 Raider program is considered to be the most urgent one at present by the U.S DOD, and they are focusing all resources for it. The contract between the USAF and Northrop Grumman consists of two phases: (1) Completing the research and development of the aircraft, including the trial production of some initial components; (2) Manufacturing the first batch of 21 aircraft. The total budget for the program is estimated at USD 80 billion. According to the recent report of the USAF, the key technologies of the B-21 show several breakthroughs and this is an important premise for the Pentagon to conduct the next steps of R&D. However, cost still be the biggest challenge for the program as in the past, the real cost of a B-2A is USD 2.17 billion, far exceeding its anticipated price of USD 566 million at the beginning. This made the USAF less persuasive when proposing to the Congress the cost of USD 550 million.

All in all, the Pentagon has revealed their ambition of developing a long-range new generation strategic bomber. The roadmap began with the modernization of the B-52H and the R&D of the B-21 Raider. To soon acquire and put the new aircraft into service, it has required its contractor to reduce some functions to lower the cost. If the program succeeds, it will be the most effective force for the U.S to realize their nuclear pre-emptive and offensive capabilities, enabling them to intervene into anywhere necessary and protect their allies. This move will trigger an arms race as Russia and China would not want to be left behind in the game.

Senior Colonel Dang Dong Tien, General  Department of Technology

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