What’s the real range requirement for a “long-range” bomber?

As we await whatever is releasable in the US Air Force’s request for proposal (RFP) for a new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), I am working through the four questions that I believe policymakers should want answered if the program is to proceed. To recap from yesterday, those are

  1. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, how it is going to penetrate serious air defenses?
  2. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, why is a shorter-ranged aircraft inadequate?
  3. If the bomber is to have a nuclear capability, why are ballistic missiles are inadequate for nuclear attack?
  4. Can the performance requested be provided within the cost and schedule advertised?

I’ll deal with the second question today.

Range has been a recurring stretch goal of the USAF for over half a century. Global Reach, that is, was an institutional objective well before it was a tagline. Michael Brown recounts nicely in Flying Blind (see my essay from yesterday) how the original requirement for intercontinental range in what became Convair’s B-36 Peacemaker grew from a concern that Britain might fall to the Nazis. At that point, the US Army Air Forces might have found themselves trying to bomb Berlin from Labrador. But even as the program was getting rolling in the middle of war, that now-superfluous requirement was not rolled back. Rather, intercontinental range was maintained as a political requirement, even when it wasn’t possible technologically, because it would help distinguish the missions of the then-Army Air Forces from those of the Army Ground Forces. The availability by the early 1950s of tanker aircraft suppressed somewhat the appetite for range, and instead whetted that for speed, which was one way of improving the aircraft’s survivability.

Today, if only to deal with transpacific hostility from China, a longer-ranged bomber than the F-35A is a sound idea, but it needn’t be an aircraft with intercontinental range. A big bomber could fly in from Hawaii—or even Missouri—but is that necessary? Almost any conceivable war against China would be run substantially out of Japan. If it weren’t, it’s not clear why the US involved. And if Chinese interdiction of airfields meant that it couldn’t be run out of Japan, then the Japanese are in for a horrible time, and the alliance would have bigger problems than a few missing bomber squadrons. On this basis, once could argue that what the US needs for that imagined war is not another B-2, but a modern analog to the F-111, just without the maintenance-intensive variable geometry, or another McNamarian imperative to make it a joint program.

It may seem reasonable to wonder how much of that uncompromising higher-faster-further culture persists in the USAF today. But the B-1B and B-2 programs have shown that the service does choose other objective functions for aircraft programs: in those cases, low-level penetration, and low-observability. With the LRS-B, we have heard little regarding the range-or-speed tradeoff, but we have some reason to think that range will be sacrificed in the RFP. As Colin Clark noted in his story on Breaking Defense yesterday (“Air Force Keeps Mum On New Bomber RFP”), the one tangible thing he has heard in many discussions with Air Force officials is “that it will be much faster than anything that currently flies such missions.”

So there must be a trade-off, yes? As there remains that promise of a cost target of $550 million, money can’t be thrown at the problem to invent new science. Or is that already underway? Rolls Royce and General Electric are today cooperating in the Air Force’s Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (Advent) effort, which aims to develop an engine that is both fuel-efficient for cruising and fast for high-speed dashes in and out of defended target areas. The billion dollars devoted to this program constituted one of the few big, new starts in the 2014 military budget. But science & technology investments are no guarantee of new usable technology, so this program must be watched closely, at least to the extent that it impacts the progress of the LRS-B.

So when thinking about the LRS-B, remember to ask about range—what’s really necessary, and what’s likely possible, assuming that Advent works out, and also if it doesn’t.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.