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Boeing Frontiers
April 2004
Volume 02, Issue 11
Boeing Frontiers
Cover Story

What's next


Above: A Boeing artist's concept (above) shows a Blended Wing Body in flight near Mount St. Helens in Washington state. The Blended Wing Body concept offers the U.S. Air Force the ability to deliver large payloads over extended distances with low-observable characteristics.


When and with what does the U.S. Air Force replace its troika of legacy bomber types—the B-52, the B-1 and the B-2? It's the subject of increasing debate and scrutiny within Pentagon and congressional circles. To date, there have been more than 20 separate studies about what has been loosely termed long-range or global strike. However, there has yet to be agreement on a definitive solution or solutions.

The U.S. Air Force convened a "long-range strike summit" in December to bring direction to the process and formulate recommendations on how to proceed. The summit's findings will be released soon to an aerospace industry eager to bring focus to its own internal efforts.

For its part, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems has formed a Global Strike Team that draws on the collective talents of Air Force Systems, Naval Systems and Aerospace Support, as well as Integrated Defense Advanced Systems and Phantom Works. "What we're doing is looking at concepts and capabilities, doing some modeling and simulation, and conducting analysis of alternatives to advance global strike," said Ron Marcotte, Boeing IDS vice president and deputy general manager of Air Force Systems. "We need to study whether this is a follow-on platform or platforms and, if it is a new set of weapons, whether they can be used by the legacy fleet as well as any new future systems."

The concepts under study are many and varied, and the degree to which future long-range or global strike capabilities are advanced hinges on timing. Simply put, the longer the customer is prepared to wait, the greater the money and effort that can be expended to mature technology. The original U.S. Air Force bomber road map in 1999 did not call for a replacement system to be fielded before 2037. Recent congressional moves, however, could result in this date being brought forward.

Any new operational system or capabilities will require at least 10 to 15 years to field, according to a recent Boeing-commissioned study by Burdeshaw Associates. Critical to deciding on a replacement date will be the ability of the current fleet to remain operationally effective. For that reason, Boeing's legacy program management has been given a seat at the Global Strike Team table.

"We want to ensure the bomber arm of Boeing supports and complements the development arm as they work these new concepts," said Scott White, Boeing IDS general manager of the B-1 and B-2 programs. "We understand the user's requirements, how far these can be satisfied with legacy equipment, when these become operationally or technically obsolete, and we can help identify where the gaps begin to occur."

What's nextThe future of long-range global strike also will depend on the anticipated types of future targets and an enemy's ability to defend itself. During the Cold War, advances in Warsaw Pact air defenses forced bombers to evolve from high-level and high-speed platforms, epitomized by the stillborn Mach 3 North American B-70 Valkyrie, to low-level strike in the form of the B-1B, and finally to the development of radar-evading stealth systems like the B-2.

During more recent conflicts, the rapid destruction of enemy defenses allowed the U.S. Air Force bomber force, including the venerable B-52, to return to higher altitudes and deliver a new generation of precision-guided weapons with relative impunity.

The proliferation of double-digit surface-to-air missile systems, the development of sensors and tactics to counter stealth, and the emergence of energy type weapons will almost certainly make penetration of enemy air defenses more formidable in future years. At the same time, the growing importance of network-centric architecture is increasingly changing the targeting priorities for mission planners.

Marcotte, who was a B-52 wing commander during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and, two years later, oversaw the startup of B-2 operations at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., identified at least three distinct target sets.

The first day of a war requires critical targets—such as command and control complexes—to be destroyed as quickly as possible. "These may require a conventional ballistic missile-type weapon, capable of striking anywhere in the world within 30 minutes, or very stealthy, highly integrated, manned and unmanned platforms, or all the above," Marcotte suggested.

Once the "door has been kicked down," he said, there is an intermediate set of anti-access targets such as surface-to-air missile batteries that will require destruction. Finally, a large number of smaller targets must be removed for the war to be successfully prosecuted and an enemy defeated.

"Where you have got air domination, persistence takes on a more important role," Marcotte said. "You can then do things like in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where there were B-52s or unmanned air vehicles orbiting overhead and servicing targets as needed."

This suggests complementary solutions that encompass both upgrades to current systems and the development of related new systems, rather than the simple need for a follow-on B-3-type platform. "I think we need to be thinking about a basket of capabilities that produce the effects and results of long-range strike. I think what we're going to end up with is a family of systems," predicted Marcotte.

The composition of this future force is still the subject of study. Furnishing the current bomber force with enhanced connectivity and precision weaponry will help sustain the B-1B, B-2 and B-52 at the forefront of long-range strike for at least 15 to 20 more years. The B-1 and the B-2 are both earmarked to receive Link 16—a high-capacity, secure data link system—while the entry in service of the 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb will give each bomber the ability to precisely hit more than 100 independent targets.

The next logical extension to the bomber is the so-called "arsenal ship" that could conceivably deploy from the continental United States and carry hundreds of hypersonic weapons. These weapons, plugged into the network-centric operations architecture, would be capable of hitting enemy targets from stand-off distances. This is one potential application for the highly efficient Blended Wing Body concept. The Blended Wing Body promises to deliver large payloads over extended distances with the added benefit of low-observable design characteristics.

There is, then, the perennial debate about whether such a large platform should be manned or unmanned. The latter offers the advantage of lower cost and extended endurance as it eliminates the need for costly life-support systems and the factor of crew fatigue. Possible options have included taking the pilot out of current systems like the B-2 or further growing the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System.

"Having a man in the loop is a big consideration," conceded Marcotte, but "you could have an unmanned weapon system, with the man in the loop either on an E-10A [command and control aircraft] or back at Langley Air Force Base, Va."

An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile armed with a conventional payload in place of the more traditional nuclear warhead is another possible option. Such a system could hit targets virtually anywhere in the world within 30 minutes of launch. The ICBM also could serve as a near-term launch application for the Common Aero Vehicle—an unpowered, maneuverable, hypersonic glide weapon that can deliver up to 1,000 pounds of munitions.

The Common Aero Vehicle is a joint U.S. Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency concept. Ultimately, it might be fielded on a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle that would take off from a conventional runway and strike targets 9,000 nautical miles away in less than two hours.

"The trade space is huge," observed Marcotte as he discussed the prolific number of concepts and studies on the table. "Whatever the next capabilities are that emerge from all of this, Boeing arguably should be at the forefront, given who we are. It's probably going to be a larger set of platforms, and it's probably going to be stealthy and network-enabled. Who better than Boeing has the experience and qualifications to provide those capabilities?"


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