U.S. Bombers’ Future Hints at Flying Missions Along With Drones
(Bloomberg) -- The Air Force can’t afford to keep buying all the piloted bombers and jets it plans, the service secretary says, so he’s considering a hybrid force of drones operating in tandem with aircraft like the new B-21 stealth bomber.
“I’m looking at things that would introduce unmanned platforms” that could be sacrificed in combat, would “complement some of our more expensive high-end platforms” and would “give us the quantity we need at a reasonable cost,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in an interview this week.
Among the conceptual possibilities, Kendall said, is using the B-21 being built by Northrop Grumman Corp. in a quarterback role directing pilotless systems.
As the Pentagon’s former undersecretary for acquisition, Kendall has deep experience in the process -- and cost -- of developing new weapons.
Since taking office as Air Force secretary in July, he’s been reviewing the service’s planned shopping list for aircraft: 1,763 F-35As, as many as 200 F-15EX fighters, at least 100 B-21 bombers plus the new, still highly classified “Next Generation Air Dominance” program that some analysts already anticipate will operate with unmanned systems.
Add to that the potential $116 billion acquisition cost for the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence intercontinental ballistic missile.
“We’ve got to start finding ways to provide military capability which does not rely so much on small numbers of very expensive platforms,” Kendall said. If the service depends on planned purchases of advanced piloted aircraft “we are not going to be able to afford the Air Force -- we’ll not be able to have the force structure that we need. That’s quite clear,” Kendall said. “We’ve got to introduce more affordable elements of the force. My thinking is it would be unmanned at this point.”
Kendall is renewing attention on a warfighting concept from some years ago called the “Third Offset,” which envisioned significant numbers of autonomous, lethal systems that can be flown great distances.
“That has never been fulfilled in an operational concept,” he said.
Kendall said he may fund some studies of the possibilities this year, and he’ll seek money in the fiscal year 2023 budget. “This is in the very early stages” of planning, Kendall said.
He added that he isn’t thinking of manned aircraft launching swarms of attack or reconnaissance drones, as envisioned by some past officials.
Instead, “I’m talking about manned/unmanned teaming, potentially, but we’re open-minded,” he said. “I have some ideas. We’ll be going out to industry for ideas, trying to tap the creativity. We’ll be using operational people working closely with technical people.”
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