[Avionics Today 11-04-2015] Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced the selection of Northrop Grumman to build the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), which will replace the aging B-52 and B-1 bomber aircraft fleets. Under the estimated $21 billion contract, the Air Force will acquire a total fleet of 100 new bombers. Over the next year, Northrop will begin the Engineering, Manufacturing and Development (EMD) phase of the contract where components will be gathered and eventually integrated to develop flying prototypes that can be used for test purposes to further mature the design of the aircraft before actual low rate production begins.
Long range strike bomber concept. Photo: Northrop Grumman.
Military aviation experts, such as Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, say that the next generation bomber aircraft is long overdue. Gunzinger, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and command pilot with more than 3,000 flight hours, told Avionics Magazine the LRS-B is needed to address emerging global air defense threats.
"In the past, the U.S. military has had an overwhelming air superiority advantage; it has not had to contend with advanced integrated air defense networks. The kinds of threats we now see emerging in the Pacific, in the Middle East, and in Europe will challenge future U.S. strike operation,” said Gunzinger. “The Air Force now operates a bomber force that was designed for a different set of threats. Threats that existed during the Cold War era and, frankly, did not exist in the post Cold War era. We have an aging fleet of B-1s and B-52s and increasingly the B-2 is now more than 20 years old, and they were developed for a different threat regime, different operational conditions from what we now see emerging in the Pacific, Middle East and elsewhere. If we are going to maintain our nation's ability to strike over long ranges and into areas where advanced air defenses exist, we will need a new set of capabilities — to include a new bomber — that are survivable and carry a large weapons payloads."
Outside of a conceptual prototype drawing and an indication from a 2015 Super Bowl advertisement that the LRS-B will be a flying wing design expanding on the B-2 and X-47B NAVAIR Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), little is known about the next generation bomber Northrop has already started working on. During a presentation to the House Armed Services Committee in September, Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the military deputy for the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the next generation bomber is part of a family of systems that includes delivery vehicles, missiles, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare, stealth and communication components with the "highest level of technology maturity of their type of programs to date."
"LRS-B is being designed to have an open architecture. The Air Force Open Mission Systems (OMS) standards enable open architecture, provide streamlined processes for systems integration, and will encourage competition," Bunch said in his testimony.
Gunzinger, who served as a senior advisor to the U.S. Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Review (QDR), says the aircraft will set the global pace for long range strike technological innovation and advancement.
"By far, it will be the world's most advanced bomber," he said.
Avionics-wise, as with most major military platforms, Northrop will serve as the large-scale systems integrator pulling from a pool of sub-contractors with specialization capabilities in the areas of communications, surveillance and navigation. Northrop has not yet specified who the sub-contractors are, but the company has indicated that most of those sources have already been determined, according to Gunzinger.
"In general, I suspect it will have state-of-the-art avionics and an AESA radar that is capable of performing multiple functions as well acting as a sensor. For instance, it may be capable of acting as a communications node and conducting electronic warfare operations. The real point is, advances in AESA radars could give LRS-Bs the capability to perform missions other than strikes. I anticipate the LRS-B will also have avionics that make it a great ISR platform, and with communications systems to pass threat and targeting information to other platforms to support net-centric warfare," said Gunzinger.
The Air Force is projecting Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the LRS-B by mid next decade. According to Gunzinger, time and production rates are key to leveraging LRS-B to restore the Air Force's global air defense superiority.
"I do have concerns with how quickly [the U.S. Department of Defense] DOD is going to procure this capability. The decision to procure a new penetrating bomber was announced by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. That was almost 10 years ago, and the mid-2020s is another 10 years away. Frankly, it's taken quite a bit of time to get to where we are, and the LRS-B is needed today. I would like to see its production rate exceed six or seven a year. The relative handful of B-2s now in the fleet simply cannot generate enough strike sorties. Accelerating the fielding of an operational LRS-B fleet would reduce the amount of time the nation has a gap in penetrating, long-range strike," said Gunzinger.