The Next-Generation Bomber, or B-3, is intended to serve as the backbone of the Air Force’s long-range bomber force over the long haul. Along with aerial refueling, stealthy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and denied-area communications, the B-3 will constitute a critical and indispensible element of America’s long-range penetrating surveillance and strike capability for decades to come. Recently, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the program, evidently to refine B-3 requirements, such as whether it should be unmanned. This report makes the case for full-rate production of twelve aircraft per year from 2018 through 2027, progressing through five block upgrades, the last four being unmanned designs in order to turn it into a truly global surveillance-strike asset.
The Air Force should continue to expand and adapt its airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance force to meet the needs of existing threats and emerging challenges. Despite its aggressive fielding of Predator UAVs in recent years, the Service must field a more multi-dimensional ISR force able to surveil a variety of mobile targets ranging from individuals to high-end systems in denied areas. It should start by initiating developmental programs for stealthy follow-on systems to the MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk with the goal of fielding a robust, three-tiered stealthy ISR UAV fleet, the third tier consisting of ISR-optimized Block 50 RB-3s for deep, clandestine penetration into high-threat environments.
As with the Air Force’s airborne ISR forces, the US military increasingly depends on Air Force satellite systems. The Service must work to accomplish a minimum of five objectives in the space arena: (1) reverse the atrophy in the US space design and industrial base, and its associated manpower base; (2) address the looming deficit in the joint force’s ability to transmit critical information to deployed forces in opposed-network environments via long-haul, high bandwidth protected satellite communications (SATCOM); (3) improve protection for all current and planned space assets, even those in geo-stationary orbit (GEO); (4) develop the means to rapidly replenish destroyed or disabled satellites; and (5) tackle the lack of “space reciprocity” in DoD that leads to requirements gold-plating and fractured fiscal incentive structures.
Like the other Services, the Air Force could have been more aggressive in adapting to the demands of long-duration irregular warfare. With the notable exception of the Predator UAV, it operates with a fleet designed for 1980s major combat operations, accomplishing irregular warfare tasks at an unsustainable cost in fuel and accelerated airframe wear. This report advocates that the Air Force consider expanding its irregular war forces to include armed reconnaissance and short-takeoff, light airlift aircraft.
Given the range of future operational challenges outlined in Chapter 2, emerging threats employing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities will likely force an evolution away from massed operations involving short-range, multi-role fighter-bombers. Indeed, at some point over the next two decades, short-range, non-stealthy strike aircraft will likely have lost any meaningful deterrent and operational value as anti-access/area denial systems proliferate. They will also face major limitations in both irregular warfare and operations against nuclear-armed regional adversaries due to the increasing threat to forward air bases and the proliferation of modern air defenses. At the same time, such systems will remain over-designed—and far too expensive to operate—for low-end threats. In short, the so-called “tac-air shortfall” or “fighter gap” is only a problem if one believes that (1) the legacy force fighter-bomber structure replacement is affordable; and (2) its utility will endure in the future security environment. Stealthy air superiority craft—even those with relatively short range, such as the F-22—may retain significant utility over the next twenty years, however, particularly in the near term, given the proliferation of sophisticated Russian air defense systems.