USAF’s LRS-B bomber proceeds, but is completely classified

The US Air Force’s new Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program is entirely classified. The USAF isn’t just withholding technical data, the service won’t even share programmatic details such as if there is a system program office in place or a competition or anything else. “Specific LRS programmatic details are protected with enhanced security measures,” says Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy.

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Northrop Grumman Photo

All we know for sure is that there is some money allocated for the program in the budget–about $300 million in fiscal year 2013 and total of  $6.3 billion from fiscal years 2013 to 2017–and what few details the USAF is willing to release. We know that the new bomber will be a stealthy, optionally-manned, long-range penetrating strike aircraft that will be part of a “family of systems” from the service’s budget documents. Those same documents say the service is aiming for a price tag of around $550 million per aircraft–and it wants the plane operational by the mid-2020s. Ultimately, the Air Force hopes to buy anywhere from 80 to 100 aircraft.

That’s all pretty optimistic, of course… Delays and cost overruns tend to be almost inevitable when developing a sophisticated new weapons system–even if that system uses “mature technologies” as the Air Force says the LRS-B will. But with the US defense budget sure to come down over the next few years, it’s not clear what the future holds for the new bomber.

But the LRS-B does enjoy high level support in the Pentagon and the Whitehouse (it was the only program that US President Barack Obama specifically referred to during the budget roll-out earlier in the year). But then there is the whole sequestration issue coming up in January, so we’ll see what happens…

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Kremlin Photo Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack.

Meanwhile, Russia is also developing a new bomber called the PAK-DA. According to press reports in that country, it’s being developed by Tupolev… Which makes sense–Tupolev did develop the Tu-95 Bear, Tu-16 Badger, Tu-22 Blinder, Tu-22M Backfire and finally the Tu-160 Blackjack.

There appears to have been a debate as to whether Russia actually needs a new bomber–though Russian policy-makers appear to have decided to go ahead with the project. Earlier in the year Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told Izvestia that bombers probably wouldn’t remain a part of the Russian Federation’s strategic nuclear deterrent in the future. “Look at the level of development of anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses: all these planes will never get near their targets,” he said.

But Rogozin appears to have been overruled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We have to develop work on the new PAK-DA long-range bomber aircraft for Long-Range Aviation. I know how expensive and complex this is. We have talked about this many times with ministers, and with the head of the General Staff. The task is not easy from a scientific-technical standpoint, but we need to start work,” Putin said, according to RIA Novosti in June. The Russians, like the USAF, hope to have their new bomber operational by the mid-2020s.

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A Xian H-6, photo by Aquatiger127, Wikimedia Commons

One country that doesn’t appear to have any immediate interest in building a new strategic bomber is China… They have fairly recently modernized their Xian H-6 fleet to the new H-6K variant. The new variant entered service in 2009 apparently with updated avionics, engines and aircraft–though at the end of the day, it’s still an antique Tu-16 Badger copy. The aircraft is also reportedly equipped with new cruise missiles, which could potentially threaten US aircraft carriers and outlying US territories and bases–in keeping with the anti-access/area denial strategy. But there doesn’t appear to be another Chinese bomber project right now that’s been observed, but who knows?

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