The B-3 is Not a Replacement Bomber: It is Part of the Revolution in Air Combat Affairs


2015-05-12 By Robbin Laird

The bomber has a long and distinguished history in first the Army Air Corps and then the US Air Force.

When the B-17 was born, it was a controversial aircraft, which proved its worth when Nazi Germany controlled a continent and only the B-17 fleet could deliver strikes inside Nazi-controlled territory, given the bomber’s range and payload.

Unfortunately, there was significant conflict before the war when fighter pilots and bomber advocates argued for the primacy of the one over the other — with the result being B-17s flying unescorted into Nazi territory and facing significant attrition.

Bombers and fighters are interactive capabilities, then and now.

With the addition of the B-29, a new tool set was added as well to Pacific operations, which become the harbinger of things to come in the Cold War, as the B-52 entered the fleet.

The bomber started as a “strategic” asset in terms of being a central part of the nuclear triad and then in terms of the amount of ordinance it could deliver in conventional operations.

That role became clear in the Vietnam War.

Flash forward to 2015, and the B-52 is still around having been joined by the B-1 and the B-2; all of which are playing roles unimagined at the time the B-52 was introduced. Now bombers can perform a wide variety of tactical missions, including close air support, given the revolution in precision-guided munitions and the sensors that can be used to guide those weapons to their targets.

There has been an inversion of the strategic and tactical with the evolution of airpower, whereby small teams of aircraft can deliver strategic effects while conducting “tactical” missions.

Any new bomber will be born in a period where the tactical and strategic are being redefined.

Although the new bomber will build upon the technology enhancements made over the years to the B-2, the B-3 will be no more a successor to the B-2 than the Osprey was a replacement for the CH-46. As Lt. Col. Berke of the USMC – the only F-22 and F-35 operational pilot and the first F-35B squadron commander — has put it: “The Osprey is the chronological successor to the CH-46 but that is about it. It compares in no other way.”

Clearly, the B-3 has the possibility of being defined as a blend of advanced airframe approaches and the proven, modern avionics and sensors that are being integrated on the F-35.

The new bomber therefore “replaces” the B-2 in the sense that the Osprey replaces the Ch-46. And a Lt. Col.

In the USAF 15 years from now might make the same comment which Berke made about the Osprey with regard to the B-3.

The B-3 will enter a fleet in the midst of a revolution in air combat affairs.

This revolution is seeing sea and air operations inextricably intertwined with air power, so much so that airpower is the ubiquitous enabler for 21st century combat operations.

And, with the introduction of the F-35 global fleet, a re-norming of airpower is underway y and an offensive-defensive enterprise is being created for the US and its allies to prevail against the wide-ranging global threats in the 21st century strategic environment.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.

This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), and it is why Secretary Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that fifth generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems but an entirely new approach to integrating defense and offense.

By shaping a C5ISR system inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which can honeycomb an area of operation, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations.

Rather than looking solely at the organic capability of the B-3, the synergy the B-3 brings to the battlespace is the key discriminator in how it is built, deployed and used.

For example, forward-deployed fifth generation aircraft and missile defense systems can find targets for the weapons loads on the B-3, which in turn can function as the battle manager for an integrated missile defense, fifth generation, attack and defense enterprise. This means that that the sensors, the C2 and information management capabilities of the bomber are a crucial element of its capability.

At the heart of shaping an offensive-defensive enterprise is what one might call the S3Revolution.

Sensors, stealth and speed enable the air combat enterprise to find, kill and respond effectively to the numerous adversarial threats global powers and pop up forces can present to the US and its allies.

A redesign of forces is underway and modular capabilities provide for scalable forces which can provide both presence and reach-back and forces can be tailored to match the threat. As the central force in the air combat enterprise, the B3 can enable the United States tohave the upper hand with the Chinese in a 21st-century strategic engagement.

The bomber as the centerpiece of the air enterprise provides a new kind of presence, linked with highly interoperable, Lego-like blocks able to work with allies that allow for scalable forces with reach-back to U.S. capabilities in the littoral and the homeland. The bottom line: U.S. forces need to be highly connected and interoperable with its allies. The bomber provides a core reach-back capability enabling the entire engagement force.

The B-3 will be born in a period of the offensive-defensive enterprise, the S-cubed revolution and the redesign of forces around modularity scalability and reach-back.

It is not simply going to provide more ordnance over greater distance to do strategic missions; it is about reinforcing and enabling greater capabilities for the combat air force undergoing a revolution in air combat affairs.

Slide Credit: Ed Timperlake
Slide Credit: Ed Timperlake 

The platform needs to be built with the revolution in air combat affairs in mind.

Range and payload will be important elements of the basic platform, as will leveraging new concepts of stealth to provide low observability.

But that is simply a foundation to what the B-3 is all about.

First, it needs to be capable of drawing upon the sensor rich environment being delivered by the global F-35 fleet, unmanned systems and various ISR assets.

Second, it needs to have a C2 system whereby it can obtain and provide tailored information to the warfighter engage in a particular mission set.

Third, with the scalable force it will need to be able to provide battle management capabilities for more forward deployed or shorter-range assets.

Fourth, the weapons revolution is accelerating, and over time, different weapons could well be placed on different platforms, so that the B-3 will need to able to not simply to manage the weapons it has onboard organically, but to be able to operate in a sensor-enabled strike environment, where it is a key but not necessary the lead or even most important asset.

Fifth, with the coming of the second nuclear age, not only will the B-3 become a nuclear delivery vehicle but a deterrent asset able to work with the combat air force to deliver timely and effective strikes against nuclear powers like North Korea BEFORE they can use their missiles and weapons against US and allied targets.

In other words, the B-3 is part of the re-norming of airpower, a key enabler of the forward deployed F-35 global enterprise, a key element in both living off and providing targeted information, and key user and provider of sensor enabled weapons, and a key deterrent weapon against second nuclear age powers.

This has little to do with the B-17, somewhat more like the B-52 but not really about building a powerful organic strategic asset like the B-2.

It is about being a highly effective enabler of more effective longer-range engagement operations, which can effectively tap into joint or coalition airpower.

It is not simply about being a powerful thing in itself (a bomber), but providing significant enhancement of the contextual capabilities of 21st century airpower.

Editor’s Note: This piece was first published on Breaking Defense: