US Plans to Develop Nuclear Bomber Would Enrich US Weapons Industry

February 1st, 2011 - by admin

Bill Sweetman / Aviation Week & Megan Scully / National Journal – 2011-02-01 21:31:11

US to Develop New Nuclear Bomber
Bill Sweetman / Aviation Week

WASHINGTON (January 6, 2011) — Defense Secretary Robert Gates has put the US Marine Corps’ troubled F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical landing (Stovl) Joint Strike Fighter on “probation,” while endorsing the US Air Force’s long-coveted new bomber program.

The F-35A and F-35C models emerged unscathed from Gates’ review. However, the F-35B “is experiencing significant testing problems,” Gates said at the Pentagon January 6.

Implying that problems are more serious than previously reported, he adds that “these issues may lead to a redesign of the aircraft’s structure and propulsion — changes that could add yet more weight and more cost to an aircraft that has little capacity to absorb more of either.”

The JSF test program will be restructured so that testing of the F-35A and F-35C runs ahead of the B model, rather than the other way around. If the B model cannot be “fixed or gotten back on track” in two years, “I believe it should be canceled,” Gates says.

Gates’ comments came during a press conference announcing a series of budget efficiencies designed to cut or redirect more than $150 billion from current Defense Department spending over the next five years.

Delays to F-35B testing so far — fewer than a dozen vertical landings have been logged since March 2010 — have been publicly attributed to a problem with the auxiliary engine inlet door, and individually minor issues with components such as cooling fans.

More details of changes to the JSF program also emerged, including another delay in the completion of systems development and demonstration (SDD) and a cut-down production ramp. SDD is now delayed to early 2016, versus mid-2015 as planned in the restructuring of the program early last year.

SDD finishes with the conclusion of development testing and precedes initial operational testing and evaluation, so the move likely will push initial operational capability (IOC) into 2017. (The individual services are assessing their IOC dates.) This will cost an additional $4.6 billion to the program.

The Fiscal 2012 JSF buy — low-rate initial production (LRIP) Lot V — will be held at 32 aircraft, both to reduce concurrency and because “the final assembly process at Fort Worth is still maturing,” Gates says. Deliveries at this point are late by multiple months.

In Fiscal 2013 and later, deliveries will ramp up by a factor of roughly 1.5 per year, for a total of 325 aircraft through LRIP IX (on contract in 2016 and delivered by 2018) versus 449 in the previous plan.

The LRIP IV contract, just signed, will be changed to eliminate all but three Stovl aircraft. The US will buy only six Stovl aircraft in each of the next two LRIP Lots (V and VI), regarded as the minimum needed to sustain the supplier base and unique skills.

Gates indicated in response to questions that a last-ditch appeal by Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos and his predecessor may have saved the B-model from outright cancellation. Gates said the commandants made a convincing argument for more time to fix the program.

The Navy also plans to acquire more Super Hornets and extend the structural life of 150 “classic” Hornets as a hedge against late JSF deliveries. The service will buy 41 more F/A-18s in Fiscal 2012-14.

Meanwhile, in a major breakthrough for advocates of long-distance airpower, Gates strongly endorsed a program for “a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber.”

The Air Force has been struggling to get this program reinstated since Gates deferred development of the so-called “2018 bomber” in 2009, against the opposition of some senior Pentagon leaders who argued that smaller unmanned aircraft, plus cruise and ballistic missiles, could adequately supplement existing bombers in the foreseeable future.

Gates also announced decisions on a number of controversial aspects of the new aircraft. It will be nuclear-capable — some had argued for this, on the grounds that radiation-hardening is relatively inexpensive at the design stage and costly to retrofit, while others had opposed it because it brings the bomber within the scope of arms-control discussions. Gates also says that it would be “optionally” piloted rather than unmanned, and that it would make use of existing technologies to speed development.

Industry Looking for Indications of New Nuclear Bomber
Megan Scully / National Journal

WASHINGTON (January 26, 2011) — When the Pentagon sends its fiscal 2012 budget request to Capitol Hill next month, many lawmakers and defense industry officials will scan the lengthy document for any hints about a future long-range bomber the Air Force plans to build to modernize a fleet whose average age is 33 years.

The effort, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly endorsed earlier this month, is one of only a handful of new developmental programs — and the only new major aviation program — the cash-strapped Pentagon is proposing.

In a January 6 speech otherwise remembered for a list of programs he wants to terminate or scale back, Gates said conventional deep-strike capabilities, including a new bomber, are a “high priority for future defense investment,” considering the challenges and more sophisticated adversaries the United States could face in the future.

“It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service,” Gates said.

His remarks were not lost on the industry, which has been clamoring for another chance to design, develop and build a bomber since Gates axed the manned bomber program in 2009. At the time, Gates said before moving forward that he wanted a more thorough understanding of the need and requirements for a new bomber.

Industry giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are all expected to vie for the program, a multibillion-dollar, optionally manned, nuclear capable bomber. 
Winning the contest would be a huge financial victory for any one of those firms, while also giving them a priceless opportunity to preserve a highly skilled workforce that hasn’t seen much work in the last two decades. Indeed, the last bomber built for the US military was the B-2, a Northrop Grumman program whose maiden flight was in 1989.

Design teams capable of creating a bomber are nearing retirement age. And, without new work soon, it will be difficult for the outgoing workforce to pass along the skills to a new generation of designers and engineers.

“We have an army of engineers who are extremely highly trained and competent [and who] frankly need the work,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who recently served as a senior adviser to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review of military capabilities and requirements.

There is concern, Gunzinger said, that without a new bomber program, the expertise culled during the development and production of the military’s mostly Cold War-era bombers could potentially take decades to replace.

“Those design teams basically won’t exist unless the [Department of Defense] pays for them,” said David Berteau, an industry analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “DoD has to spend enough money to keep enough design teams in play that they have enough competition.”

But despite Gates’ support for the program and widespread concerns about the industrial base, industry watchers expect the 2012 budget to contain very little additional detail and perhaps only a bit of seed money to keep the three companies interested in the program — and their design teams employed.

Gates and other officials have made news in recent weeks by backing a bomber that can be piloted remotely and will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. And Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on January 12 stressed the need to field an affordable aircraft by tapping proven technologies.

“Development of this new bomber will leverage more mature technologies and we think will reduce the risk in the program, allow us to deliver with greater confidence on schedule and in quantities sufficient to support the long-term sustainment of long range bomber capabilities after the current fleets of B-1s and B-52s retire,” Donley said.

Other details, such as the stealth characteristics and technologies required to evade modern radars, are more elusive. And some analysts say major technological advances for the onboard systems are still years away, making the 2020s the only reasonable goal by which to field the bomber.

“I just don’t think we’re quite there yet,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

But if the Pentagon sets aside money specifically for bomber development in its 2012 budget, that would at least be a step forward. In its fiscal 2011 proposal, the Pentagon requested $200 million for the effort, but that funding was largely for studies on the design of the future bomber, as well as needed upgrades to the existing fleet.

Whatever may or may not be in the 2012 budget proposal, the industry will almost certainly be reading between the lines to glean more details on what the Pentagon wants and when it plans to start investing significant cash to develop and buy the bomber.

“It could be that the details emerge for possible approaches [which would serve as] guidance to the companies on where they should be investing their money and focusing their studies,” Aboulafia said. “That’s a step in the right direction.”

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