U.S. Air Force leaders fear that the B-2 may be the last manned heavy bomber. This type of aircraft first appeared in American service during the 1930s and has been a mainstay of American air power ever since. But new technology (more capable missiles and UAVs) threaten to end the use of heavy bombers. There are currently fewer than 200 of these aircraft in U.S. service and only 20 of the latest model: the B-2. There are only about 600 air force personnel on active duty who have flown the B-2. That’s less than one percent of air force pilots. Moreover, only 35 of these pilots have flown the B-2 more than a thousand hours and only 17 of those are still assigned to B-2 duty. Getting to a thousand hours in a B-2 usually takes a decade or more, because air force pilots spend a lot of time in non-flying jobs. No pilot has reached 2,000 hours in the B-2 yet. With such a small pilot community (the core supporters of any aircraft type) there is not a lot of support for a new heavy bomber.
The air force has long had plans for a new heavy bomber but the biggest problem here is obtaining enough money for the LRSB (Long-Range Strike Bomber). The air force says it can build, design, develop, and get LRSB into service within 15 years at a cost of $550 million each (in current dollars). Development costs will be kept low by using a lot of existing technology. In effect, the LRSB would be a larger version of the F-35, able to carry 6-10 tons of smart bombs over 9,000 kilometers on internal fuel. Few in Congress believe the air force can pull this off and that if they are allowed to try the LRSB would be late and cost over a billion dollars each. Moreover, the air force budget is shrinking and there are huge costs looming to pay for over a thousand new F-35s, to replace aging F-16s and F-15s. There is also pressure to go with stealthy combat UAVs, which the fighter pilots running the air force are not enthusiastic about. The future of the LRSB, and manned aircraft in general, does not look good. No matter what air force leaders want, they will have to deal with the more immediate problems of completion from UAVs and paying for all those new F-35s.
Meanwhile, the air force has continued to update the small B-2 force. In the last few years this included installing new bomb racks that allow each B-2 to carry 80 smart bombs (227 kg/500 pound SDBs). To complement that, the B-2s have also had Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar installed. AESA systems consist of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. AESA type radars are popular mainly for their ability deal with many targets simultaneously. The B-2 AESA enables the bomber to find targets itself and use one of those 80 JDAMs to deal with it. B-2s also received a more powerful satellite datalink, which enables it to more quickly share AESA or camera data with other aircraft (including UAVs). With 80 JDAMs, the air force sees the B-2 as a one aircraft bomber fleet, able to take out 80 different targets.
The B2 is a complex aircraft that was first used during the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign. It was difficult to keep operational because the radar receiving skin of the aircraft requires a lot of maintenance. For each hour the B-2 is in the air, 53 man hours of maintenance were required. The air force likes to have 60 percent of its aircraft ready to fight, but for the B-2 only 33 percent are available. This has since been improved considerably, but the B-2 still requires more maintenance than other heavy bombers, like the B-52 or B-1B.
The 181 ton B2 was in development throughout the 1980s and went into service in 1992. The B-2 is a combination of radically new and untried technology that was very advanced, very difficult to perfect, and very, very expensive. Over $25 billion was spent before the B-2 even flew, and projected costs were over $70 billion for 132 aircraft. Only 20 were built by 1996, pushing the cost per plane over $2 billion each. This means that three B-2s cost more than a nuclear aircraft carrier, and one B-2 cost more than half a dozen Peacekeeper ("MX") ICBMs and their hardened shelters. The B 2 can carry 20 tons of bombs for over 8,000 kilometers, or, with aerial refueling, anywhere on the planet. The stealth makes it possible for one B-2 to go places that would otherwise require a dozen or more specialized aircraft to get through to, and some of those would be lost getting in and out. As a result, the air force is treating the B-2 more like a warship, that can quickly be sent anywhere on the planet and unleash, in this case, 80 precision bombs. This is an unprecedented capability, which has not really been used yet. So far, it's been cheaper to send B-52s or B-1s to deliver smart bombs. With the way UAV technology is developing it appears that no new heavy bomber design will be able to compete.
Meanwhile, only the Russian Air Force is talking about developing a new heavy bomber. No one else sees any future in this type of aircraft, and the Russian generals are facing the same obstacles their American counterparts are confronted with. While there may still be another generation of manned heavy bombers, the odds are against it.