The U.S. Defense Department’s proposed 2012 budget represented a surprising bonanza for warplanes. Despite a flattening topline — $670 billion, compared to more than $700 billion for 2011 — design and production of military aircraft remains strong. In the coming year, the Pentagon wants to purchase, at a cost of $27 billion, around 530 manned and unmanned aircraft, while also accelerating design work on a new carrier-launched naval drone and a new manned stealth bomber for the Air Force.
Formal announcement of the new bomber — almost certain to be designated “B-3″ — is perhaps the most significant development for U.S. air power in many years. But it’s possible the bomber’s not really new at all — at least not in its components. The Pentagon’s ambitious schedule for the bomber, combined with the growing pressure on the military budget, mean the bomber designers will likely rely on technologies developed in secret in recent years inside the Air Force’s $30-billion-per year “black” world.
The Air Force’s roughly 160 existing B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers give Washington a unique advantage over rivals. Though China and Russia also possess heavy bombers, theirs are less numerous and far less sophisticated. Bombers allow the U.S. to attack targets at extremely long range. That’s a capability that’s particularly useful for operations in the Pacific region, where the U.S. maintains a small number of widely-separated bases arrayed against China and North Korea.
Today’s bomber fleet won’t last forever. Even the youngest B-2 is now around 15 years old; B-52s average 50 years in age. More to the point, only the 20 stealthy B-2s are suited for attacks against the most heavily-defended targets. The new B-3 “must be able to penetrate the increasingly dense anti-access/area denial environments developing around the world,” the Air Force explained.
Marilyn Thomas, a civilian budgeteer for the Air Force, said the government would purchase between 80 and 100 B-3s. The Air Force wants the first squadron ready for combat in the early 2020s.
To achieve this goal, the Pentagon realizes it must avoid the endlessly escalating cost and delay traditionally associated with new combat aircraft programs. Just two years ago. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled, on cost grounds, a previous attempt to build a new bomber. The current bomber’s development budget totals just $3.7 billion for the next five years, though the rate of spending will surely accelerate past 2016.
In any event, the Air Force wants its new bombers cheaply and quickly.
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