The Future of Long-Range Strike

Sept. 28, 2015

The Air Force is about to wrap up work on a new Bomber Roadmap, trying to reconcile evolving operating realities with extremely tight budgets. The document will likely call for a modest increase in the bomber force in the midterm, along with a robust series of upgrades and new weapons designed to give the legacy bomber fleet more capacity, connectivity, and reach.

According to senior USAF officials and outside experts, who addressed unclassified aspects of the roadmap, it follows the service’s new 30-20-10 format: It provides a 30-year vision explaining the capabilities USAF must have in long-range strike circa 2045, a more structured 20-year plan focusing on deploying new capabilities, and a detailed 10-year budgetary program of near-term investments.

Underlying the plan are some new operational “givens.” Chief among these is the fact that deadly air defenses are increasingly common, making it tougher for the Air Force to penetrate an ever-growing number of locations. Secondly, accurate tactical ballistic and cruise missiles, with increasingly long reach, will push Air Force staging bases farther away from an enemy’s territory, putting a premium on combat aircraft with intrinsically greater range and standoff weapons.

“As we look to the future, we have to look at … the demand signal for the bomber force,” said Brig. Gen. Ferdinand B. Stoss, Air Force Global Strike Command’s head of strategic planning and programs. The roadmap is “a very high-level strategic conversation” about the mix and numbers of bombers “in the out-years, and because bombers … have such longevity, what’s needed in the way-out years.”

He said, “This is not an easy or simple study to conduct. It’s extraordinarily strategic and long-ranging.”

To meet its commitment to provide an attack option against any target in the world, USAF is buying 80 to 100 new Long-Range Strike Bombers, planning limited usability circa 2023 and initial operational capability by 2030. At first, these will be in addition to the B-52—the youngest of them is already 53 years old—and the B-1B, turning 30 this year. Both are expected to serve to at least 2040—and probably beyond. The B-2, the youngest of the existing fleet at 20 years old, will serve until 2058.

The USAF bomber fleet comprises some 159 airframes: 20 B-2s, 63 B-1Bs, and 76 B-52s. At any given time, a number of bombers are undergoing programmed depot maintenance, and a small number are dedicated to testing new systems, software, and weapons.

The pacing of the LRS-B’s introduction to the force was still apparently unsettled in August. Air Force acquisition chief William A. LaPlante, in a July interview, said he expects USAF to buy the LRS-B fairly quickly, estimating “it’s probably in the ballpark of 10, 12, 14 a year” to acquire between 80 and 100 aircraft. He said this rate would probably be most efficient, assuming a typical manufacturing learning curve. But Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, speaking at an August Pentagon press conference, said that after initial deliveries in the mid-2020s, production “would probably continue for 25 years or so.” A service spokesman later said, “Production planning assumes a relatively low production rate” and the LRS-B might be bought through 2050.

In other words, the Air Force may have to buy smaller and somewhat less-efficient annual lots of the new bomber to keep annual spending within realistic budget limits and to maintain a warm production line.

Timing Out

During the period 2031-50, the Air Force will continue fielding the LRS-B and evolve the aircraft “as threats and technology mature,” the spokesman said, adding that the exact details are classified.

The LRS-B will “replace the B-52 and B-1,” Welsh said. They will “time out, eventually.” He joked that “the B-52’s going to try to make [it to] 100 years, … but we really should question that.” At their planned retirement in 2040, the B-52s will be nearly 80 years old.

LaPlante said in an interview with Air Force Magazine, however, that the 80 to 100 figure is not ironclad, and future production decisions will be for “someone long after my tenure here.”

The roadmap is an in-house effort of the Air Force, according to Stoss. It’s needed not just to plan numbers and upgrades, but to think through “second- and third-order implications” of the choices made. He said, “We have many agencies that are working with this” within the Air Force.

Besides AFGSC, Air Combat Command, the Air Staff, Air Force Materiel Command, and others all have roles to play in the roadmap, which will consider bomber needs within global strike, one of USAF’s core competencies. Bomber capabilities will be traded against those of fighters, remotely piloted aircraft, and other assets to find the right force mix.

Big changes are already underway in the bomber world. After more than two decades as an ACC asset, the B-1 shifts this month to become part of Air Force Global Strike Command. It will still be a conventional-only platform—by treaty, it cannot have any strategic nuclear role—and the B-1s will remain at their current bases. However, Stoss said there’s a “natural synergy bringing all the bombers under one command.” Those synergies and “cross-pollination” include tactics, training, doctrine, programming, and requirements, as well as more efficient headquarters and numbered air force functions, Stoss said, and it will also improve “aircraft modernization and acquisition.” New systems designed for one bomber might be applicable across all three.

“Diversity,” he said, “makes you stronger, and this is one more way to have diversity of expertise and background.”

Though there have been rumors in the last few years that the B-1 fleet would be cut to save money, Stoss said, “in the short term, I think we’re looking at a static” number. Right now, “there’s plenty of work for all of the bomber force.”

Each of the legacy bombers plays a unique role in the fleet. The B-1B was removed from the nuclear mission in the early 1990s, but can carry the largest payload and has been the conventional workhorse in Afghanistan and Iraq, serving as on-call close air support able to offer massive firepower with the response time of a fighter.

The B-2 is the only bomber able to penetrate enemy modern air defenses and conduct direct-attack missions, by virtue of its stealth design. It conducted the initial attacks in every major combat operation since Operation Allied Force in 1999, and is the Air Force’s only direct-attack nuclear bomber.


The B-52 is the other nuclear bomber, but only as a carrier of the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, which can be fired more than 1,000 miles away from its target. In a “permissive” combat space, B-52s regularly carry a large conventional payload directly to the target, as was done many times in Iraq and Afghanistan. The B-52 is USAF’s most versatile bomber, able to carry many types of munitions. The Air Force has certified the B-52 to carry, among other things, sea mines.

The ALCM keeps the B-52 in the nuclear game, Stoss said, but the missile was “designed in the 1970s, produced in the 1980s, and had a 10-year life expectancy, and now it’s 30 years past that.”

A critical program for AFGSC is the new Long-Range Standoff Missile (LRSO), to replace the ALCM beginning sometime in the next 10 years. Stoss declined to say whether the LRSO would employ hypersonic technology, but Air Force Research Laboratory chief Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Masiello said in June that a hypersonic standoff missile could be fielded by “the mid-2020s.” He did not directly link the LRSO and the hypersonic weapon, however.

“We continue to do service life extension programs on the ALCM, but there’s a point in time where you need a new capability,” Stoss said, and the LRSO provides that. The B-52 and LRSO “would be an awesome combination,” he added. More than that, Stoss said he couldn’t “discuss methods and domain that the LRSO is going to operate in.”

The B-52 is going through a series of upgrades that give it greater weapon flexibility and builds on the installation of a “digital backbone,” allowing it to communicate via data links. The CONECT (Combat Network Communications Technology) upgrade provides for “rapid retargeting, rapid retasking,” Stoss said, noting that the whole fleet should have the upgrade by “the 2020 timeframe.”

The program, called the 1760 Internal Weapons Bay Upgrade, will let the B-52 carry all the so-called “J-Series” weapons in its internal weapons bay, according to Eric Single, chief of the Global Strike Division in LaPlante’s acquisition office. These weapons include the Joint Direct Attack Munition; its laser guided variant; both the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and its Extended Range variant, JASSM-ER; and the Miniature Air Launched Decoy and its jamming variant, the MALD-J.

Previously, these weapons could only be carried on external pylons. Single said the weapons would be carried on internal rotary launchers, and in the future, might allow for a mixed internal as well as external load.

The B-52 is “like an iPhone,” Stoss observed. “You can put different applications on it,” and even if “something isn’t exactly aerodynamic, [it’s] not a big deal. The B-52 itself isn’t exactly aerodynamic.”

There are two big projects AFGSC would like to undertake for the venerable B-52.

One is an engine upgrade.

In June, 8th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Richard M. Clark told a House panel that a new engine for the B-52—carrying eight motors—is a “critical” requirement.

The TF-33 engines are more than 50 years old, out of production, and spare parts are getting scarce. “If the B-52 is to last another 25 years, an engine replacement would make sense because of the savings to be had on maintenance and less fuel consumption,” Clark argued. Operationally, new motors would allow the BUFF to climb faster and to higher altitudes, carry more weapons, and increase its range.

Stoss said the Air Force has been in talks with industry to see what kinds of off-the-shelf commercial engines might fit the bill for the B-52.

Particularly attractive is the idea that new engines might be so reliable that they never have to come off the wing for the B-52’s remaining life, offering considerable “back shop” manpower savings—in addition to as much as 35 percent better fuel efficiency, Stoss noted.

However, Single said, USAF cannot afford to provide the up-front funding for a massive re-engining project like this because of “other priorities that take precedence.” But the service is looking at “third-party financing” and other novel approaches to come up with the cash. Another approach is a program allowing federal agencies to invest in “green” technology to make buildings more energy efficient. The agencies doing this can pay the investment costs back with the savings recouped. However, the federal program is geared to real-property assets and may not be applicable to Air Force jets.

“I’m open-minded to any idea that … will save money,” LaPlante said in July. His initial guess as to whether the green-building funding approach would work “is ‘no,’ but they’re looking at it again.”

Single said it would be a “bad assumption” that the LRS-B will replace the B-52 before the B-1B.

The LRS-B “has a different role” from the B-52, Single explained. The B-52 has a standoff role, but like the B-1, the BUFF “can be used in a permissive environment for direct attack.” Also, it has the nuclear mission, unlike the B-1.

The LRSO is being designed with the B-52 in mind as the initial carrier platform, but both the B-2 and LRS-B will be able to carry it, Single said. Under the New START agreement, USAF is limited to 60 nuclear-capable bombers, including the 20 B-2s. The B-52s excess to the remaining 40 are to be “de-modded,” such that they are no longer nuclear-capable and fill only a conventional role.

The B-1B is receiving “probably one of the largest mods … since it was built,” Single said. Involving three different improvements to the B-1B’s avionics, the omnibus program is known as the Integrated Battle System. It’s so substantial that Lt. Col. Michael Williams, who leads the 419th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB, Calif., said it “ought to be called the B-1C.”

One element is the Central Integrated Test System, to add self-diagnostic systems to the bomber, streamlining maintenance.

Another is the Fully Integrated Data Link, or FIDL. Single explained that it provides the bomber with beyond line of sight visual communications with people on the ground—usually a forward air controller—as well as machine-to-machine targeting information. The improvement will allow the B-1B crew to see common information with the ground controller—via “something like the Rover” handheld data-sharing device—making it “a huge force multiplier” in the close air support role.

Upgrades And Updates

The third element is the Vertical Situation Display Upgrade, providing better situational awareness for the crew with a “state-of-the-art flight instrument.”

There are no other major upgrades currently in the budget for the B-1, according to Single, but that “doesn’t mean there won’t be any in the future.” A structural study is being done on a B-1 carcass taken out of the Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., “Boneyard” to see just how long the B-1’s service life could be extended, but Single said “it would not need any additional service life upgrades” to reach 2040. Beyond that, it “would depend on what they find out with the structural study … [and] what that final bomber flight plan comes out with.”

The B-2 is going through what Northrop Grumman officials have christened a “midlife update.” Computers—old 286s that were state-of-the-art three decades ago—used for flight controls, are being replaced with modern hardware, and black boxes are being replaced with circuit cards. Single, a former B-2 pilot, said the upgrade also puts in “new data buses, … new data storage, so it becomes the backbone for any kind of future B-2 avionics upgrade.”

Second is the Defense System Management Modernization project to change out processors, antennas, displays, to give the pilots a very much more robust situational awareness capability. The defensive management system “will display threats as you penetrate”—cuing off the radio frequency signals from an enemy integrated air defense system— “and tells the pilots where those systems are.” Stealth aircraft survive by avoiding threats. The system allows the pilots to thread their way between defenses and around pop-up threats.

On a global strike mission, even though the mission has been planned, “when you get to theater, potentially 15 hours later, [things] may have changed. There may be things the intel community has not sensed yet,” said Single.

Another improvement is called Flexible Strike, a “re-hosting of the stores management system” on new computers. It increases the memory, reducing the time required to load targets into the weapons. In the future, it may be possible for the B-2 to carry a diverse load of weapons, but that upgrade is not yet funded.

Finally, the B-2 is getting a very low frequency (VLF) radio improvement. It’s the same system that “the B-52 uses now,” Stoss said, and the same waveform that allows the National Command Authorities to communicate with ballistic missile submarines and ICBM launch control centers.

An ongoing program, Single noted, is the Low Observables Signature and Supportability Modifications effort. It applies improvements to the B-2’s stealthiness. While some of them actually reduce the B-2’s radar and infrared signature, most are designed to speed up the time-consuming process of ensuring the B-2’s stealth finish is in good condition. A previous effort under this program substituted an automated tape-laying system for a previously hand-applied technique to fill seams in the B-2’s surface.

“It targets affordable, quick-to-field solutions, to keep the stealth characteristics maintainable [and] affordable,” Single said. That’s key because the B-2 fleet is so small. “The number of aircraft you have available for use at any given time is very critical,” he said.

A crucial future upgrade for the B-2 will be an extremely high frequency (EHF) communications upgrade. There was to have been one in the current package of modifications, but it was terminated when the Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminals (FAB-T) program “really became unaffordable,” Single said. USAF is doing a new affordability analysis to see when EHF can be added back in.

The B-2 was the first aircraft to make large-scale use of composites in its structure and surfaces, but Single said there’s no indication they won’t last a long time.

The year “2058 is the expected service life right now, and that has not changed,” he stated.

Is there a known time when even the B-2 will no longer be a viable penetrating asset

“No,” Single asserted, but “it depends on … the environment you’re trying to penetrate.” He said that for the worst-case, “incredibly complex” IADS, “we may not have anything that can get in there.” But as bombers and fighters “roll back” enemy air defenses, eventually all the bombers could participate in a future war with a peer adversary.

“And that’s true today,” he said.

By early September, the Air Force had not said much about the LRS-B’s unique role in the bomber mix. Senior officials have suggested it will be considerably stealthier than the B-2, and with regular block upgrades, will be modified to take on new missions and incorporate new technologies with an “open architecture.” Future upgrades will be competed and not sourced solely with the jet’s original manufacturer.

Weapons will be a key element in USAF’s future ability to get at any target, and as air defenses push the denied zone farther away from the target, standoff weapons will become increasingly important.

In a study released by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in June, authors Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark argued that USAF is not investing in enough standoff weapons for the anticipated threat.

Weapons like JASSM, JASSM-ER, and LRSO will simply be too expensive to buy in the requisite numbers, they said, and as air defenses become more lethal, the “probability of arrival” of many standoff munitions will decrease, to perhaps only 50 percent. That will demand many more standoff weapons than expected, they said, noting that USAF plans less than five percent of its munitions inventory to be standoff types.

A cost-effective way to address the situation, the CSBA study suggested, might be to extend the range of JDAM, JSOW, Small Diameter Bomb, and other systems with propulsion tail kits, not unlike the inventory improvement made by converting dumb bombs to precision weapons with the JDAM tail kit. This way, USAF could move a large portion of its existing precision munition inventory into what the authors called the “sweet spot” of standoff, in the 100-nautical mile to 400-nautical mile range.

LaPlante, asked the July interview if the CSBA study was a good approach to enhancing future long-range strike, said he agreed that “we need cheap munitions that are longer range.” He thinks USAF needs more weapons able to go 1,500 miles to 2,000 miles,? and ‘cheap’ to me means less than a million dollars a pop.” That’s where Tomahawk and JASSM-ER come in now.

Global Attack

He was suspicious, however, of the rate of attrition of standoff weapons postulated in the study, and thinks it won’t be that hard to get missiles to their targets.

“Anybody who’s worked in missile defense—anybody—knows handling a salvo [of] more than about 10 is hard, if not impossible, … particularly when you add clutter, debris, and countermeasures. It’s always easier to be [on] the offense than on defense,” LaPlante said. “Defense against missiles is hard.”

According to various estimates, the Air Force plans to spend more than $50 billion on enhancing its bomber fleet over the next decade. The service said $41.7 billion of that will be on the Long-Range Strike Bomber alone. However, global attack is the Air Force’s second-most important core competency, after air and space superiority. Given limited expected funding and the worsening threat, the service’s decision to keep flying its old iron seems the best way to hedge its bets.