A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is refueled over the Pacific Ocean. A panel at this year's Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium featured a full-throated defense of a new long-range strike bomber as a key asset for the future of the Air Force. (Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Doyle / Air Force)
ORLANDO, FLA. — The Air Force needs its new long-range strike bomber, even if it can’t give details.
That was the message of a panel held Thursday at the annual Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.
The panel featured a full-throated defense of the long-range strike bomber as a key asset for the future of the Air Force. It was a slightly puzzling attitude, given that the bomber has been identified as one of the big three key modernization programs for the service and has secured what Lt. Gen. Burton Field, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, called “great support” from Pentagon and congressional leadership.
“Bombers can send messages. They can influence or initiate action, and they are credible because of what they have done in the past,” Field said, specifically citing events last year when a B-2 bomber flew near North Korea and a B-52 was flown through China’s new air defense zone. “Bombers can send messages fast, and they send messages with credibility.”
Just how those messages would be sent is still unclear. Information on the bomber remains sparse, although Field offered some general hints.
The new platform will be fielded in the mid-2020s, with penetrating capability in mind. The service will procure between 80 and 100 of the bombers, which will mostly be made with existing technologies. Those platforms will also have both stand-off and direct-attack munitions and room for a “significant” payload.
Field clarified after the panel that the 80- to 100 range is more about uncertainty over the price — the service wants to keep the cost for the program under $550 million per plane — rather than a figure representing the minimum number of bombers needed to mitigate risk (Note: An earlier version of this story did not specify that the $550 million price tag was per plane).
Asked whether there would be a ramp in funding in the FY 2015 budget, Field replied: “No, I don’t think so.”
He also indicated that the bomber would be manned in early production, but the service will look at whether to add unmanned capabilities down the road.
While the new bomber will be based on existing technology, both Field and his co-panelist, analyst Rebecca Grant, talked about the need for the platform to move technologies forward.
“It will be through this bomber program that we have our best chance right now of bringing in the exotic new technologies of the future into new development,” Grant said, citing developments such as directed energy weaponry, hypersonics and alternative fuels as options that could be looked at.