Speaking to US military personnel deployed in Iraq on December 11th 2009, Gates highlighted how the USAF’s future strike force would probably include both piloted and pilotless aircraft types – a combination that, he said, would provide a “family of capabilities.”
This could potentially be a sign of encouragement for US defence firms, which are despondent over what has been a relatively quiet spell in terms of new air force development projects as of late. Last year, one firm – Lockheed Martin – collaborated with Boeing to take on Northrop Grumman on the construction of a future USAF bomber.
USAF Air Force Bomber
In strategic terms, the US air force bomber force is presently comprised of three types – the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1b Lancer and the B-2 Spirit. Of these, the B-52 is by far the oldest, but through various upgrades it is set to serve the air force for about another three decades. The B-1b is the fastest, with a top speed of Mach 1.25 – or 830 miles per hour – while the B-2 Spirit is the stealthiest. All three serve solely with the USAF.
According to information in the public domain, the new aircraft will be developed in line with criteria that specify the following credentials:
- The bomber’s speed will be within the subsonic range (so below 768 miles per hour)
- The bomber will be capable of striking targets approximately 1,000 miles away and returning to base
- The bomber will be able to carry a maximum weapons load of up to 28,000 pounds (this suggests that it will be a smaller aircraft than the B-52, B-1b or B-2, which can all carry 50,000 pounds or more). Its weapons arsenal will include nuclear devices
- The bomber will able to “survive in hostile airspace for extended time”
- The bomber will make its first flight in around seven year’s time
According to Gates, the future USAF combat role will be a significant one and that reaffirms the importance of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, which will serve the USAF, the US Navy and the US Marine Corps alike. Contrary to recent reports concerning the Pentagon’s intention to reduce the number of F-35s that are set to be pieced together, and to ramp up the programme’s overall cost, Gates stressed in the same December 11th speech that sizable Joint Strike Fighter orders are still planned.
“The biggest procurement program in the Department of Defense today is the F-35, and we're going to end up probably buying among the three services about 2,400 or 2,500 of those aircraft”, he said, adding: ”So that's a big new capability."