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Inside The Air Force January 13, 2006

Pentagon Sets Plan For New Bomber, Terminates J-UCAS Program

By Jason Sherman

The Defense Department will begin work this year on a next-generation long-range strike aircraft, accelerating its bomber modernization plans by nearly two decades in an effort to quickly enhance the Air Force’s effectiveness across the Asia-Pacific region.

The Quadrennial Defense Review, set to be delivered to Congress next month, will call for the Air Force to move up the date to field a new bomber from 2037 to 2018, according to Pentagon sources familiar with the recommendation.

As part of this effort, sources said, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has terminated the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program, which was aimed at developing a similar aircraft for both Navy aircraft carriers and Air Force air-to-ground strike missions. This action, spelled out in a classified budget memo last month, directs each service to pursue independent unmanned aircraft programs, according to sources familiar with the document.

Part of the follow-on Air Force effort could be integrated in the new bomber program, sources said.

Sources familiar with Air Force plans, who spoke on the condition they not be identified because the Pentagon has not released its QDR findings, said the service this year will conduct a study of the issue and launch an analysis to produce a set of alternative approaches for a Next Generation Long Range Strike Aircraft program.

“It will be in the QDR,” said one source familiar with the review’s recommendation on accelerating work on a new bomber.

The Air Force’s long-range strike aircraft fleet currently includes B-52s, some of which have been in service since 1962; the stealthy B-2s; and the B-1 fleet. In total, the service has approximately 160 bombers. The Air Force, however, is advancing a new plan in the fiscal year 2007 budget request to trim its B-52 fleet from 96 to 54 aircraft.

Three capabilities are expected to be essential for the Next Generation Long Range Strike Aircraft program: the ability to remain airborne for many, many hours; the means to fly very long distances; and the ability to carry significant numbers of bombs. The importance of these factors is expected to make the case for an unmanned system, Pentagon officials said.

“An unmanned bomber is not an option they’ve look at very much in the past, but it is very easy to understand that they would put it in the mix now,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, who has long tracked Air Force thinking about a future bomber force.

Pike said the Air Force’s experience with unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator -- versions of which can fire missiles at ground targets -- the Global Hawk and the Joint Unmanned Aerial Combat System has clearly influenced thinking about modernizing the bomber force.

“The proposition that you can have a tactical unmanned medium-range, air-to-ground capability would naturally give rise to the possibility that the Air Force could have [an unmanned] long-range air-to-ground capability,” Pike said.

The action to accelerate work on a new bomber tracks closely with a recommendation last fall for a new, long-range strike aircraft program made by Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon’s director of net assessment, who called for developing capabilities necessary to deter China. That idea echoed the input he provided to the 2001 QDR, according to Pentagon officials.

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the last four years on the importance of the Pacific Rim and where it is in the strategy and how that translates to force capabilities,” said another Pentagon official. “And there will be additional emphasis in the QDR on global strike capabilities.”

Sources involved in the QDR said U.S. Strategic Command, which has responsibility for an evolving concept dubbed “global strike,” strongly advocated the need for a new bomber. These sources also said an accelerated bomber program enjoys support from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Air Force’s new leadership team, including Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael Wynne.

Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky said the service could not comment on whether a new bomber program was in the works because the QDR report has not yet been issued.

Sources said the plans for a new long-range strike aircraft puts to rest a proposal floated by proponents of the F-22 to configure a variant of that aircraft as a regional bomber.

Copyright 2006, Inside The Air Force