Pentagon details plan for new nuclear bomber

Able to carry out missions with or without onboard pilots, the fleet would be the "centerpiece" of a suite of long-range strike aircraft.

The Defense Department in a new acquisition document has laid out preliminary plans to develop a fleet of next-generation nuclear bombers capable of carrying out long-range missions with or without onboard pilots.

A "new penetrating, nuclear-capable bomber program" would form the "centerpiece" of a broader suite of U.S. long-range strike aircraft intended to eliminate and discourage the development of barriers to military operations, the Pentagon said in a legally required aircraft procurement plan spanning the next three decades. Meanwhile, the nation's existing B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers would continue undergoing updates to ensure their readiness to carry out long-range missions until 2040, the document states.

The department envisions preparing a fleet of between 80 and 100 of the new bombers at a cost of $550 million for each aircraft. The proposed quantity, the report says, would allow for Air Force "capabilities required to operate in an anti-access, area denial environment and ensure a sustainable inventory over the long term."

The Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review established broad objectives that guided the latest acquisition plan covering bombers, fighter jets, and other aircraft. Those four "strategic priorities" are: achieving victory in present conflicts and staving off new conflicts; laying the groundwork for success against hostile forces in a variety of scenarios; and maintaining and bolstering the nation's military as an organization comprised solely of volunteers.

The Defense Department projected a slight decline in its overall aircraft holdings between fiscal years 2012 and 2021; aviation force levels are slated to jump from 5,555 in the next budget period to 5,626 in fiscal 2016, before falling to 5,467 a decade from now.

The military expects to maintain 156 long-range bombers for most of the next decade, before the total inventory declines by a single plane in fiscal 2021, according to the report.

Modernization efforts would be funded to augment the "effectiveness and survivability" of the B-2 bomber, the document states. Meanwhile, the Air Force would cull six of its B-1 aircraft between fiscal 2012 and 2016 to finance updates to the remaining bombers from that fleet, it adds.

The bombers and the rest of the updated fleet of fixed-wing aircraft are expected to support or conduct six crucial military mission areas, according to the Pentagon. These include countering the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction, battling terrorists, protecting the United States, and supporting allied nations.

"The aviation plan provides the aircraft needed to cover the full complement of operations that U.S. military forces could undertake in the decades ahead, and it will evolve as security needs change," the report says. "As [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates has stated, 'What is needed is a portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict.'"

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