Warplanes: The B-3 Looks Like The B-2

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September21, 2008:  The B-3 has been seen. The U.S. Air Force is working on a replacement for its current force of heavy bombers (20 B-2s, 67 B-1s and 76 B-52s). Models of what the new bomber might look like have been shown, and the "B-3" (officially the NGB, or New Generation Bomber) looks like the B-2. There are two proposals (from Northrop Grumman and Boeing). Both look like the B-2. For the Northrop Grumman proposal, the main difference is that the stubby wings are "cranked" (moved forward a bit, rather than continuing in a straight line from the body of the aircraft). These derivative designs are apparently favored because the air force knows it is unlikely to get the money for a radical (and expensive) new design. There is also talk of building it so it can operate with, or without, a crew. The air force hopes to get the B-3 into service in ten years. That may be possible, given that the air force has several billion dollars of its money currently invested in "black" (secret) aircraft programs. The B-3 spec calls for a smaller and stealthier aircraft that carries a ten ton bomb load (less than half what current heavy bombers haul). This is in recognition of the effectiveness of smart bombs, which are more than a hundred times more effective than unguided bombs.

Meanwhile, the most cost-effective bombers continue to be the half century old B-52s, simply because they are cheaper to operate. The well maintained B-52s are quite sturdy and have, on average, only 16,000 flying hours on them. The air force estimates that the B-52s won't become un-maintainable until they reach 28,000 flight hours. Thus these aircraft could serve another 20 or more years. The B-1 and B-2 were meant to provide a high tech (and much more expensive) replacement for the B-52, but the end of the Cold War made that impractical. The kinds of anti-aircraft threats the B-1 and B-2 were designed to deal with never materialized. This left the B-52 as the most cost effective way to deliver bombs. The B-1s and B-2s are getting some of the same weapons carrying and communications upgrades as the B-52, if only because these more modern aircraft provide a more expensive backup for the B-52.

Of the 744 B-52s built, only 94 are still fit for service. Nearly fifty have already been donated to museums (including one in Australia and one in South Korea.) Because of the Russia-U.S. START treaty, hundreds of B-52s in the "bone yard" were stripped of any useful equipment in the 1990s, and, since then, chopped up for scrap. This was all done out in the open, so that Russian spy satellites could confirm it.

In the last half century, the air force has developed six heavy bombers (the 240 ton B-52 in 1955, the 74 ton B-58 in 1960, the 47 ton FB-111 in 1969, the 260 ton B-70 in the 1960s, the 236 ton B-1 in 1985, and the 181 ton B-2 in 1992.) All of these were developed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons (bombs or missiles), but have proved more useful dropping non-nuclear bombs. Only the B-70 was cancelled before being deployed. The B-1 was delayed and almost cancelled, but proved that the air force would do anything to keep the heavy bombers coming.

The air force generals are now asking the aircraft designers for a subsonic, long range heavy bomber that could operate with, or without, a crew. Since the B-2 requires only a two pilots, and many commercial airliners have flight control equipment that, with a little tweaking, could eliminate the pilots altogether, the idea of heavy bomber UAV is well within the capabilities of current technology. The way this is going, it's likely that the next heavy bomber will be smaller (60-100 tons) subsonic, stealthy, uninhabited and familiar looking. And if rumors from the world of "black projects" are any indication, it is already under construction.

 

 


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