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US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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Written by Major S. Yakukho; Originally appeared at Foreign Military Review 2020 #6, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront

Today’s strategic offensive forces (SOF) of the US Armed Forces include submarines (SSBNs) equipped with ballistic missiles (SLBMs), intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and strategic bombers (SBs) with nuclear bombs or air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). This triad, along with their command and communications system, provides the versatility and flexibility to optimise the Unites States’ strategies to meet deterrence, security and contingency objectives.

The joint actions of the triad and the duplication of some of its functions are the key to the survival of the American deterrent forces in the event of an attack and allow them to threaten a potential enemy in a crisis or conflict.

In addition, the current state of the SOF components themselves, especially their obsolescence and physical deterioration, pushes the US military leadership to carry out large-scale measures to deeply modernise all types of nuclear weapons carriers (NWC) in order to extend their service life and, as a result, carry out further replacement without compromising the state’s defence capability.

Currently, the SOF of the United States are armed with 14 Ohio-type SSBNs, 400 Minuteman-3 ICBMs with a mono-block head, placed in launching silos in several states, 46 SB B-52N Stratofortress and 20 B-2A Spirit aircraft.

The initial construction phase of the renewed SOF (until 2024) is planned to be carried out as part of the implementation of the Treaty on Measures for Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START Treaty) concluded with the Russian Federation. In accordance with the document, the parties pledged to have 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and deployed and non-deployed SB launchers by February 5, 2018. At the same time, the structure of the SOF and their quantitative indicators were determined by the participants themselves.

The US Strategic Bomber Force (SBF), according to the Pentagon, is the most flexible part of the nuclear triad. In addition to being alerted and sent to various regions of the world to carry out combat missions, the SBF’s aviation equipment can also be deployed to forward-based theaters in order to prevent potential aggression and support allies.

US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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Unlike ICBMs or SLBMs, the SOF forces, taking into account the available possibility of refueling in the air, are able to stay on the combat route for a long time, which in turn allows the aircraft crews to change targets if necessary. Under these conditions, flights outside the continental United States are aimed at demonstrating Washington’s capabilities and steadfastness to fulfill its obligations to their allies.

The SB have a wide range of weapons. In particular, the aircraft can carry different types of nuclear and precision-guided munitions, which provides the flexibility to deter potential adversaries under different conditions. So, with the help of B83 and B61-11 bombs, it is possible to defeat various highly protected targets. Therefore, both types of these munitions are planned to be kept in the arsenal until the effectiveness of the new B61-12 aerial bomb, which should appear in service in 2022, is sufficiently confirmed.

In addition, a significant maximum combat load of the aircraft (more than 20 tons) makes it possible to equip bombers with additional weapons, including SLCMs. This onboard weaponry allows them to strike at the objects of the likely enemy without entering the zone of destruction of its air defence systems.

US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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In addition to the B-52H Stratofortress and B-2A Spirit aircraft, the US Air Force’s strategic bomber fleet includes 62 B-1B Lancer aircraft. This technology, originally developed as a carrier of nuclear weapons, is converted into a non-nuclear version of the SB and is deduced by the American side from the calculation of strategic offensive weapons. To increase the ability to hit enemy targets with non-nuclear weapons, a programme is being implemented to expand the range of weapons used. In particular, since 2018, the new AGM-158C anti-ship missile has been included in the B-1B armament.

The Pentagon is actively implementing plans to modernise the SOF in order to maximise the life of the current fleet of the country’s Air Force.

In particular, a number of programmes are being implemented aimed at improving the avionics of the B-52N aircraft. In addition, it is planned to preplace its turbojet engines TF-33-103, developed by Pratt & Whitney, whose service life is limited to the early 30s. It is expected that the implementation of these steps will not only improve the flight performance of the aircraft (range and duration of flight), but also significantly reduce the cost of its maintenance. In total, the US military department intends to purchase about 650 new turbofan engines. The main manufacturers are the American companies General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce.

US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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In general, the military leadership of the US Air Force notes that the modernisation of the B-52N SB is a comprehensive programme aimed at improving the effectiveness of their combat use in future military conflicts in a single information and communication space. In addition, it is assumed that the measures taken will expand its capabilities for the use of conventional guided aircraft weapons, as well as allow the integration of new sighting suspended containers into the on-board weapons control system to be completed.

The B-1B Lancer bombers that are not subject to the START Treaty will be re-equipped with new avionics from 2019 in order to improve their information capabilities. At the same time, the existing problems of this type of aircraft do not allow American engineers to keep it in the national Air Force after 2040 without large-scale costs. According to the test results conducted in 2012-2013 for the strength and resource of the bomber by Boeing specialists, it was established that the element limiting the life of the aircraft is the lower surface of the wing, the total flight time of which should not exceed 15,200 hours. In addition, it is noted that is not economically viable for the Pentagon to repair this design. Another important factor pushing the leadership of the Air Force department to abandon the B-1B is the high cost of one flight hour (70 thousand dollars) and labour costs for its maintenance (74 people x hours, without taking into account the work to restore the coating of the aircraft). In this regard, starting from the mid-2020s, it is planned to remove the aircraft from service and replace it with the promising SB B021 Raider.

At the same time, the American military leadership considers it expedient to withdraw from combat service of the Air Force and strategic B-2A bombers Spirit, the maintenance costs of which are significantly higher than those of its predecessor (the cost per flight hour ranges from 110 to 150 thousand dollars). In particular, in accordance with the draft document Vector of Development of Strategic Bomber Aviation, the US Armed Forces command intends to decommission the B-1B SB by 2032, and the B-2A – no later than 2036. The decision is explained by the fact that the use of all types of strategic bombers, including the promising B-21, is financially impractical. The cost of modernisation of aircraft such as B-1B and B-2A is estimated at about 38.5 billion dollars. These funds are sufficient to simultaneously carry out such work on 75 B-52N (expected cost of $12-22 billion) and invest in the development of the infrastructure of the SOF. In addition, the SB B-52N is considered as a means of carrying the entire current and prospective range of nuclear weapons, including air-launched cruise missiles under development.

US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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In general, the leadership of the US Air Force by 2040 intends to have a fleet of strategic bombers with a total number of 175 units, as well as to maintain all existing air bases of the SOF.

An important stage in the construction of the updated strategic bomber forces will be the replacement of existing carriers of nuclear and high-precision weapons with a promising B-21 Raider aircraft.

This aircraft is considered suitable for assembly at the Northrop-Grumman’s facility in Palmdale (California).

US Air Force Strategic Bomber Outlook

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The Pentagon intends to adopt the first production model of the B-21 after 2025. In total, the US defence ministry plans to deliver 100 strategic bombers of this type to the national Air Force.

In accordance with the plans of the Air Force command, this aircraft is planned to be built on the basis of the principle of “dual purpose”, which allows operation with both nuclear and conventional weapons. It is assumed that the use of technologies to reduce radar visibility on it will provide the possibility of covertly overcoming the enemy’s deeply echeloned air defence system.

The US Air Force command plans to spend from 36 to 56 billion dollars on the programme for the purchase of the B-21 Raider aircraft, the cost of one aircraft is estimated to be 564 million.

Overall, the United States, given the rapidly changing military-political environment in the world and the threats to national interests arising therefrom continue to consider strategic bombers, as an important element in ensuring the security of the US and its allies. In this regard, the Trump administration intends to continue the modernisation of the existing air fleet of the SOF, aimed at increasing the service life of obsolete and physically deteriorated bombers, while increasing their combat capabilities. The implementation of these measures, according to American estimates, will reduce the potential damage to the defence capability by updating the SOF fleet, which is necessary for Washington. In total, by 2040, the Pentagon intends to have 175 SB in combat, including 100 B-21 Raider and 75 B-52N Stratofortress.

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