Air Force envisions stealthy long-range bomber for 2018

A senior Air Force official on Wednesday said the Air Force plans to leverage existing technologies developed for the F-22 Raptor fighter jet to create and field a next-generation, long-range bomber over the next decade.

The service, which hopes to fly the bomber by 2018, likely will use the F-22's stealth and maneuverability capabilities when developing the new aircraft, Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., said during a breakfast with reporters. The F-22 features fifth-generation stealth technologies.

By contrast, the Air Force's B-2 bomber -- the youngest aircraft in its bomber fleet -- was fielded in 1989 and features only second-generation stealth capabilities.

The service also plans to make the bomber a subsonic propulsion aircraft, said Elder, who also oversees integrated analysis and planning for so-called global strike capabilities for the U.S. Strategic Command. Hypersonic technologies now under development will not be ready by 2018, but could be used in a follow-on bomber the service will field around 2035.

"The reason this thing is doable in 2018 is that the technologies exist," Elder said. "For 2018, we have technologies that we can exploit quickly."

Plans for the long-range bomber were unveiled last year in the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review to fill a looming capability gap in the fleet. That review also called for retiring 38 B-52 H-model planes, a move that has been strongly opposed by lawmakers reluctant to part with the venerable bomber fleet.

After Wednesday's breakfast, Elder noted that congressional restrictions on retiring 20 of the B-52s the service had planned to take out of service could eventually strain budgets for the bomber development effort. "It hasn't yet, but it will," Elder said. "Would it help the Air Force, in terms of having resources for the next-generation bomber, to have these airplanes retired? The answer is yes."

Elder also said the Air Force is moving ahead with plans to modernize and man only 56 of the B-52 bombers, and cannot afford to do more than that. "You can have airplanes, but if you don't have the crews to fly them it really doesn't do anything for us," Elder said. "So we are manned to fly and robustly fly those 56 airplanes."

Last year, Congress required the Air Force to keep its B-52H fleet at 76 aircraft, allowing them to retire only 18 of the bombers. The House-passed version of the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill and the Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the measure both continue the retirement restriction and add funding to modernize all 76 B-52s.

"The committee strongly opposes a strategy to reduce capability in present day conventional long-range strike capability without a replacement platform," the House Armed Services Committee said in its report accompanying the bill. "The replacement platform is not projected to achieve initial operational capability until well into the future."

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