The U.S. Air Force’s new Long-Range Strike Bomber will be less complex and cheaper than the flying branch’s last bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-2. That’s the vow service leaders have been making in Washington, D.C., in recent months as the potentially $55-billion bomber program gets off the ground. (Congress approved the first $300 million in development funds last fall.) “The program will leverage mature technologies” to keep the per-bomber cost to under $550 million, according to Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, an Air Force spokesman.
But one requirement seems to fly in the face of the “no-new-technology” mantra. “It will capable of both manned and unmanned operations,” retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who once oversaw bomber operations over Afghanistan and the Pacific, says of the new bomber. The so-called “optionally-manned” capability could give the new bomber a huge range boost in robotic mode. “Today’s weapons and platform technologies allow an aircraft to stay airborne far longer than a human can maintain peak mental and physical performance,” explains retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a big drone booster.
Optional manning would seem to introduce a high degree of risk into the Long-Range Strike Bomber program. But there are indications the Air Force is basing the new bomber’s “drone mode” on technology developed for a purely unmanned warplane the flying branch abandoned in 2006. That could reduce the risk to the Long-Range Strike Bomber. Moreover, the drone origins of the optional-manning technology could provide a preview of the new bomber’s basic design outline.
Starting in the mid-1990s the Air Force, the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency collaborated on a competitive program to produce the world’s first jet-powered, armed drone warplane. The multi-billion-dollar Joint Unmanned Combat Air System program pitted two prototype aircraft — Boeing’s X-45A and Northrop’s X-47A– against each other in a series of increasingly complex and realistic tests.
The X-45, in particular, advanced rapidly. By 2005, Boeing was flying two X-45 prototypes simultaneously alongside two simulated drones that existed only in the company’s computerized control systems, and doing it “over the horizon” — that is, with the drones in California and the ground-based operator sitting at a console in Seattle, the two swapping data via satellite.
Despite this dramatic demonstration, in early 2006 the Air Force walked away from the J-UCAS program, leaving the X-45 without sponsorship. The Navy continued developing the X-47 on its own.
The Air Force has never fully explained why it ditched the drone competition, but the timing hints at one possible reason. In 2006 the Air Force was beginning to spend real money on the so-called “Next-Generation Bomber,” a stealthy B-2 successor and precursor to today’s Long-Range Strike Bomber. The Pentagon cancelled the Next-Generation Bomber in 2009, but analysts believe its basic design elements will reappear in the new bomber.
Two sources close to the J-UCAS program say the Air Force mined the X-45 design team — and to lesser extent the X-47 designers — for people and information that could be applied to an optionally manned bomber. “About a year before the boom was lowered in X-45, many of my coworkers in St. Louis got yanked into something very important,” one drone engineer tells Combat Aircraft.
That something, the source adds, was probably the Next-Generation Bomber and, by extension, the Long-Range Strike Bomber. In other words, the Air Force didn’t truly abandon the X-45. It just repackaged it in a larger airframe with an optional pilot. The shift itself might have doomed the original X-45, considering the limited number of engineers with the skills required for major unmanned aircraft programs. “You’re going to have two dozen people to choose from,” says one Pentagon insider
The Air Force is apparently also counting on the Navy’s work with the X-47 to support the new bomber development. Paul Meyer, a Northrop vice president, says the X-47 effort has helped maintain the “critical skills” the company will need to bid on the Long-Range Strike Bomber. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also planning to bid.