Air Force chief describes future bomber

The Air Force's top general on Tuesday reaffirmed his service's commitment to fielding a new stealth bomber by 2018.

The future bomber will be capable of penetrating sophisticated enemy air defenses day or night, said Air Force chief Gen. Michael Moseley, at a breakfast in Washington hosted by Government Executive. To survive daylight raids in heavily defended enemy territory, the bomber would need to be fast and highly maneuverable in addition to stealthy.

"We can make 2018," Moseley said, "because we've asked industry to look at using the existing engines, existing sensors, existing weapons, weapons bays, just like we built the F-117 in the late '70s and early '80s. We used F-15 landing gear; we used internal structures off of other airplanes."

He noted that the export to potential enemies of advanced fourth-generation integrated air defenses and modern Russian-built Sukhoi and MiG fighters means many existing Air Force jets would not survive future air campaigns. "The 2018 [bomber] will have the signatures and the capability to survive day or night in any of those environments," Moseley said, adding that the new bombers will "tear up" enemy air defenses.

The Air Force currently has only 21 B-2 penetrating bombers, Moseley said. The service's 97 B-52 and 67 B-1 nonstealth bombers have proved to be "wonderful trucks" to use over Iraq and Afghanistan to provide 24-hour air support to ground forces, but would not survive against modern air defenses, he said. The new fifth-generation bomber will be much stealthier than even the B-2 stealth bomber and F-117 stealth fighter, as those planes used 1970s and 1980s technology, he added. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review directed the Air Force to field a follow-on to the B-2 bomber by 2018. There has been considerable speculation surrounding what a new bomber will look like. In 2002, then-secretary James Roche directed the Air Force to look at modifying the Lockheed Martin-built F-22 Raptor fighter into an "FB-22" version. The B-designation indicates bomber.

Studies by Lockheed Martin showed an FB-22 -- which would largely resemble the existing F-22 but with larger wings that would hold more fuel to extend its range -- would offer improved stealth, the ability to defeat enemy fighters and the possibility of a two-man crew to ease pilot strain during long-range bombing missions.

But some discount the idea of a future bomber resembling an F-22. "To get the range and payload" the Air Force wants in a new bomber, the service would need a much larger aircraft, said Rebecca Grant, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

Moseley said the Air Force has a stated need for 381 F-22 fighters, although the service has been authorized only 183 by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He said without the full 381, the Air Force would not be able to generate as many attack sorties as would be required in future wars.

Instead of the traditional 24 planes per squadron, squadrons would have only 18 F-22 jets. "You don't have the overall capacity to deploy and generate forces with 183 total versus 381... [you have] less ability to provide the capacity to theater commanders, less sortie generation rate, less training capacity," Moseley said.

He said that beyond the 2018 bomber, the Air Force is considering a next-generation one that will incorporate much greater "technological leaps." New technologies the service is examining include a Mach-5 speed capability and the ability to fly at very high altitudes -- possibly exoatmospheric ones.

The Air Force chief also said the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are straining current defense budgets, and added that it's time for the country to have a discussion on the percentage of gross domestic product that is devoted to defense spending. Current defense spending is close to 4 percent of GDP. While declining to state a desired percentage, Moseley said, "I think on the aegis of what would be a 1 percent or 0.5 percent [increase], what would that mean to the Army's Future Combat Systems, Navy shipbuilding, Marine modernization… and recapitalization of the Air Force. I think there is something there to have a reasonable discussion."

Click here for a complete transcript of Moseley's remarks at the breakfast.

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