Stealth Bomber Drone To Complement The B-21 Raider Could Be Pushed Into Development Soon
The Secretary of the Air Force outlined a vision for a strictly unmanned aircraft with the same range as the B-21 stealth bomber.
The U.S. Air Force is exploring the possibility of developing a bomber drone, active work on which could begin in the next couple of years, as a future complement to the forthcoming B-21 Raider. This project, as it is envisioned now, will leverage work being done now on advanced autonomous unmanned aircraft, and artificial intelligence-driven systems to go with them, through the service's Skyborg initiative, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Air Combat Evolution program, and Australia's Airpower Teaming System "loyal wingman" drone project.
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall revealed the unmanned bomber concept during a keynote speech at the Air Force Association's (AFA) 2022 Warfare Symposium last week. The service's top civilian also reiterated that there would eventually be an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) component of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. Kendall said the state of the development of the unmanned portion of NGAD remains too “early … to commit” to formally as part of the Air Force's broader tactical aviation plans. It's unclear if these two unmanned systems are related to pair of planned classified drone projects he revealed the existence of in December 2021, which he said he was looking to get formally started in the next few years.
NGAD “will include a crewed platform teamed with a much less expensive, autonomous, uncrewed combat aircraft employing a distributed, tailorable mix of sensors, weapons, and other mission equipment,” Kendall explained. He added that the program is “very much” a “system of systems” concept, rather than an effort necessarily focusing on specific individual platforms, something The War Zone
Kendall said there was "more work to do" on the unmanned bomber concept, which he described as "more speculative." He said that the Air Force was still defining the underlying concept of what they would be looking for in such an aircraft.
However, the Air Force Secretary did make clear that he was not necessarily referring to an unmanned version of the B-21, which was designed from the outset to be optionally manned. He said the basic idea of drone bomber, at least in his mind now, would have a comparable range to the Raider, but a “payload to be determined."
Separately, Randall Walden, the head of the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which is in charge of the B-21 program, told Air Force Magazine that the unmanned bomber concept Secretary Kendall was talking about have to have the same “range, endurance, [and] speed” as the Raider. He added that "a pretty wide swath of things that could fit” the general requirements the service has laid out so far.
Most importantly, Kendall said that this unmanned bomber would have to be "operationally valuable and cost-effective." In 2016, the Air Force estimated it would cost around $80 billion to buy the first 100 B-21s, or almost $94 billion in 2022 dollars, a figure that did not include developmental or operations and maintenance costs. Last year, Bloomberg reported that new estimates indicated that it might cost around $203 billion to buy 100 bombers and operate them through 2050. This still doesn't appear to factor in plans to potentially buy as many as 145 of these aircraft, something Kendall has previously said he supports.
"I’d love to have it [the B-21's unit cost to] be less than half. I’d love to have it be a quarter or an eighth," Kendall told reporters on the sidelines of the Warfare Symposium. “The minimum we should shoot for at this point" is half the current price point, he added.
“I have an awful lot of experience with weapon systems and their cost," the Air Force Secretary said when asked about how he determined one-half of the current cost to be the goal. In 2019, Kendall, who was then a private citizen after having been Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics between 2011 and 2017, raised questions about the stability of the B-21's schedule and its cost.
By all indications, the B-21 has been a model procurement program, especially for one dealing with such an advanced aircraft, in terms of keeping as close as possible to projected costs and timelines. The initial prototype, one of six examples now in various states of production, is currently undergoing calibration testing, an important part of the workup to its first flight.
“Once you put cost on there, just like we did with the B-21, that really tells what the design’s going to be,” the RCO's Walden said in speaking to Air Force Magazine. He added that the estimated unit cost of the Raider, at least in the past, is about half what the Air Force expected to spend on each aircraft under the preceding Next Generation Bomber program, which was effectively canceled in 2010.
Still, it is not at all hard to see how the Air Force might be interested in a complimentary stealthy lower-cost unmanned bomber, even if it is somewhat less capable than the B-21. Such an aircraft could offer important benefits when operating together with manned B-21s, where they could provide additional strike capacity without the need to commit more Raiders, or as part of a purely unmanned force.
“We would take more risk with an unmanned system that is not as expensive as the manned system," Walden, the RCO head, explained to Air Force Magazine, adding they could “extend the strike capability” of B-21s by flying ahead of them. At the same time, this can only raise questions about how survivable the Air Force views the stealthy Raider in a future high-end conflict scenario.
If the unmanned bomber were to be armed exclusively with conventional weapons, unlike the nuclear-capable B-21, there is the possibility that these drones could be more regularly utilized for a broader set of missions that still require a very stealthy, penetrating platform. This might also allow the Air Force to cut back to the total number of B-21s it feels its needs to buy in order to maintain the bomber portion of the nuclear triad and still have a useful number of aircraft available for non-deterrence missions.
Unmanned bombers might actually be more multi-functional aircraft, as well. The Air Force in the past has raised the possibility of using something like the B-21 as a large air-to-air platform operating in concert with semi-autonomous "loyal wingman" drones. Any bomber-sized pilotless jet capable of stealthily penetrating deep inside enemy territory past dense integrated air defenses would inherently offer sufficient space to be potentially utilized as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform, electronic warfare aircraft, communications node, or more – maybe even more than one of these roles at once. It is already expected that the Raider itself will ultimately emerge as a more multi-purpose design.
The fact that the unmanned bomber could leverage work already being done through Skyborg and Air Combat Evolution (ACE) might even mean that what Kendall is really eying here is more of a new component of a bomber "system of systems" along the lines of the NGAD effort. While actual drones are under development as part of Skyborg, along with ACE and other tangential efforts, they are all more heavily focused on the development of scalable systems and underlying technologies that could go onto various types of manned and unmanned aircraft.
“How exactly those programs will transition hasn’t been sorted out, yet,” he added. “But obviously, they’re part of the overall picture we were looking at when we decided to move in this direction.”
Kendall's mention of Australia's ATS program being part of this larger picture raises a question about whether the unmanned bomber he has in mind could be exportable to top-tier allies, something that would almost certainly be extremely difficult to do with the B-21. This is doubly interesting when remembering that there was a very public, if fanciful discussion in some circles last year about Australia's possible need to acquire Raiders in light of the current and expected Pacific security environment in the coming years given the growing threats presented by China in that region.
However this unmanned bomber concept continues to evolve now, Kendall said he hopes it will be fleshed out enough for money to start being put toward its developments specifically starting in the 2024 Fiscal Year budget. What new information may emerge about the project between now and then, or afterward, remains to be seen since he also said it would be a highly classified effort.
No matter what, Kendall's revelation that the Air Force is exploring this new unmanned concept at all is a significant development in its own right and could have significant impacts on what the service's future bomber force actually looks like in the decades to come.
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