The US Air Force has confirmed for the first time that the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) will be manned on entry-into-service, one of a few new details revealed about the classified programme.
Several military experts have predicted the LRS-B programme would eventually become optionally-manned but enter service with a flight crew or a pilot, but the USAF has never revealed such details publicly.
Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said today at a Defense Writers Group breakfast that the service will initially field the new stealth bomber as manned aircraft. "It's likely that we'll start the bomber programme as a manned programme," Donley says. "It'll have the option to be unmanned at some point and so I think that option will be protected."
The USAF is still some distance away from awarding a contract for the new aircraft, but Donley there have been no major changes in design or requirements since the programme was launched. "We're still a year or two away from those, what I would call a downselect decision," Donley says.
The USAF still hopes to build anywhere from 80 to 100 LRS-B aircraft which would become operational in the mid-2020s. "Cost is a major factor for us," Donley says.
Donley says he is not yet sure when the service will disclose more about the Pentagon's acquisitions strategy for the LRS-B, but he did say contract details are under review. "We are developing a contract strategy at the air force and AT&L [acquisitions, technology and logistics], that work is ongoing," he says.
"We're going to protect the capabilities of this airplane," Donley says. "I think several years down the road [we might disclose more details] because we think the capabilities that it will have represent advantages not unlike those that we have enjoyed with the [Northrop Grumman] B-2."
When the B-2 was new in the early 1990s, that aircraft represented a revolutionary leap in capability for strategic bombers. Even now, nearly two decades after the bat-winged aircraft was declared operational, the USAF is still tight lipped about the stealth bomber's exact performance and capabilities.
"We have not talked about B-2 capabilities in great depth, we did not reveal the existence of the B-2 programme until it rolled out of the hangar," Donley says. "We're years from that."