As you know, the president’s new strategic guidance specifically calls for a new stealthy penetrating bomber, and the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program is fully funded in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. And while the program is classified, the information the Air Force has released about the program, combined with a general sense of current aerospace industry capabilities, indicates the new bomber will be both less expensive and more capable than its predecessor.
Now, this isn’t to diminish the capabilities of the B-2. It remains – and will remain until the new bomber is fielded in the mid-2020s – the most powerful single conventional weapon system in the U.S. inventory, and will play an essential role in U.S. power projection strategy for at least the next two decades.
That said, the B-2 is an approximately 30-year old design and has been in service for over 15 years. During that time, and largely because of the trailblazing B-2, industry has made significant advances in stealth technology – both in terms of radar signature reduction and efficient manufacturing and maintenance of “low-observable” features – and equally giant leaps in a number of other key areas that will positively impact LRS-B capability and cost-effectiveness.
Since the advent of the B-2, industry has made its most striking and revolutionary technological leaps within the unmanned aircraft domain. The Air Force has acknowledged that LRS-B will be an optionally-manned system, meaning it will capable of both manned and unmanned operations.
With respect to the latter, we aren’t talking about remotely-piloted operations like one sees with the Predator-series UAVs. Rather, if the Air Force fully leverages emerging programs and technologies – its own and the Navy’s – LRS-B will become the most advanced UAV in history, carrying with it profound implications for U.S. power-projection capabilities.
Two UAV subdomains stand out. The first is system autonomy, which can be further subdivided into the categories of autonomous flight management and autonomous mission management. The most advanced UAVs in operation today, such as the Air Force’s Global Hawk, don’t require a “pilot” in the traditional sense because they literally fly themselves and perform core mission functions, e.g., sensor employment, autonomously. Give them a mission plan and they can execute it start-to-finish without human intervention. Exceptions occur when real-time conditions call for a change in the mission plan, in which case human operators in a ground station (which houses the vast majority of the mission management software) upload new plans to the aircraft.
Future UAVs won’t only fly themselves and perform pre-planned missions autonomously, they will also possess advanced onboard mission management software enabling them to perform inherently dynamic mission functions – such as routing through mobile air defenses – autonomously and in real-time. Human operators will always remain “on the loop” for critical battle management-related decision-making – not least the decision to attack – but the UAV and its onboard software will increasingly assume a majority of the core mission execution responsibilities currently handled by pilots, both onboard and in manpower-intensive ground station.
Emerging mission management technology will also permit large numbers of UAVs, even dissimilar aircraft types, to be controlled by very small numbers of human operators, thus enabling a dramatic up-scaling of UAV operations without an intolerable growth in the mission control footprint. For example, I know that in the advanced development part of the Navy’s [Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration armed drone] program, engineers are demonstrating prototype software that allows three to five mission operators to manage a mixed force of over 40 UCAS and [Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance drone] aircraft simultaneously.
The second key UAV subdomain, also spearheaded developmentally by the UCAS-D program, is autonomous aerial refueling. Beyond high survivability, ultra-long combat endurance is the most valuable attribute for future airborne power projection systems. In addition to penetrating advanced air defenses, future systems will need to stage operations from extended, “access-insensitive” distances on the periphery of a theater outside ballistic missile (and other threat) envelopes, and they will need to persist for long durations within defended airspace to find and kill mobile and re-locatable targets.
While today’s bomber aircrews can rotate sleep schedules to tolerate long transit times and overcome the distance challenge, no one sleeps upon entering enemy airspace, so combat endurance – the time spent within the operational area – is severely constrained by human endurance limitations. Generally speaking, a manned bomber is capable of one multi-hour penetration into enemy airspace, after which the aircrew must refuel and return to base. This is particularly true if the manned bomber is staging operations from distant bases and the aircrew is logging extended transit time during the mission.
UAVs are only limited by issues such as consumables (e.g., engine oil, weapons) reservoirs and the mean time between failure of flight or mission-critical systems. With aerial refueling, an LRS-B in unmanned mode will be capable of repeatedly cycling back to a loitering tanker and returning to operational station, accumulating 24 hours or more of on-station time during a single sortie compared to five hours or less for a manned bomber.
This five-fold (or greater) increase in combat endurance per sortie will enable the planned force of 80 to 100 LRS-Bs to hold an entire country the size of Iran at continuous persistent attack risk from secure bases (e.g., Diego Garcia) well outside anti-access threat range.
http://the-diplomat.com/2012/05/06/why- ... /?all=true
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