SpaceShipOne firm to build Stealth Bomber 4.0?
Even its raison d'être can't be detected
Media reports suggest that the US military has begun a secret, multibillion-dollar programme which will develop a new and more effective Stealth bomber. Reports indicate that Scaled Composites - famous for its X-Prize and Virgin Galactic rocketplane work - will play a key role.
Evidence suggesting the existence of the new secret aircraft programme has been compiled by Bill Sweetman, doyen of aerospace journalists and the secret-plane spotter's secret plane spotter. He is nowadays editor of Defence Technology International - part of the Aviation Week media stable.
Sweetman has been poking around the idea of a new, "black" (that is, secret) bomber for a while now, noting that the US Air Force has been boldly assuming it would have a "Next Generation Bomber" or "Long Range Strike" plane of some kind by 2018 - despite the fact that there is no generally-known, published project or budget in existence which could produce any such thing. Normally there ought to be a well-funded development effort underway by now, given such a timeline.
A further clue, Sweetman believes, is offered by the US Air Force's withdrawal from the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), in which the USAF and US Navy jointly sought to build a fighter-sized, stealthy robot aircraft able to fly combat missions. The Navy has proceeded openly with its UCAS-D demonstrator project, in which Northrop Grumman's X-47B roboplane is expected to become the world's first robot carrier aircraft. (Well, the first big one, anyway.)
Sweetman reckons the US air force's next-gen aircraft push hasn't just stalled or vanished, as it seemed was the case with the USAF pullout from UCAS. That money and effort, he believes, has simply gone black, disappeared from view and carried on working. Freed from the limits of carrier aviation, the aircraft can thus become strategic bomber sized like the existing B-1, B-2 and B-52.
But it's fairly hard to make money disappear - it has a way of popping up again somewhere else. In this case, Sweetman reckons he's found the missing Air Force billions - in Northrop Grumman's accounts. The company says it has $2bn in new "restricted programs" business during Q1 at its aircraft-making division, which certainly seems to point to a major contract award.
Another hint may be taken from Northrop's purchase last year of Scaled Composites, the famous company which won the Ansari X-Prize with its SpaceShipOne rocketplane. Scaled is now building a fleet of suborbital tourist planes for Richard Branson's "Virgin Galactic" spaceline. The firm has also done a lot of work on innovative aircraft tech for the Pentagon in the past, and could well be expected to play a big role in the future black bomber and Navy robo-plane efforts.
Sweetman reckons the secret bomber will be stealthy - of course! - and supersonic, but probably not hypersonic as nobody is confident of making a Mach-4+ plane in the next decade. (Except those wacky pranksters at DARPA, but they'll say anything. Anyway, doing both stealth and hypersonic at once would seem to be asking too much altogether.)
Of course, the existing B-1 is already supersonic and the B-2 is stealthy; the F-22 Raptor and upcoming F-35 Lightning are both, though smaller and shorter ranged. However, the B-2 has horrendous maintenance and handling issues. Furthermore, like all early-generation Stealth planes, it's a lot less stealthy from some directions than others. This can make planning a mission very complicated, as the bomber has to avoid pointing any of its less-stealthy bits at air defence radar stations during its trip. (Or else be far away, or have a jammer aircraft backing it up or something.)
The new black bomber might have new, fourth-gen technology, speculatively dubbed "Ultra Stealth" by Sweetman. This could conceivably offer a radar cross-section a thousandth of that presented by the Stealth-3.0 F-35, now in production test. Even a mosquito has a radar signature ten times larger than this.
Of course, strategic bombing is all rather out of fashion these days. Even tactical bombing tends to be a matter of hanging about for a long time in fairly safe bits of sky, dropping a few small, precise weapons on rare occasions. Opportunities to mount sneak raids into an alive-and-kicking air defence network are nowadays scarce. And when they do crop up, it seems that electronic trickery may count for more than low radar signature.
Do you need to take out the Iran's deep uranium centrifuge bunkers at Natanz, perhaps? Well, if a B-2 with a couple of Massive Ordnance Penetrators won't do, you could just put a suitable conventional warhead on an intercontinental missile. The need for a new bomber isn't immediately apparent, especially one that isn't even hypersonic.
(And no, launching a rocket won't make people think you've started a nuclear war, any more than when your nuclear-capable planes take off.)
However, the US Air Force apparently counter such arguments by saying that their new stealth planes - which in any case don't exist, so why are you even criticising them* - would also be great for spying missions. Air force men the world over tend to love bombers and strategic bombing - without these things, they might have to go and be part of the army.
The loose plan might be to keep things black until maybe 2010, then hold a competition for the production bomber fleet which Northrop/Scaled would be bound to win, having already built a secret demonstrator. This might avoid some of the messy hair-pulling by rival contractors which has made the USAF's life such a misery in recent aircraft buys.
Some versions of the plane might be manned, but for ultimate stealthiness and endurance an unmanned version would be more or less bound to appear. Read all of Bill Sweetman's crafty analysis here and here. ®
*This could be a primary reason for keeping the project secret.