Australia and the Goldilocks bomber

In my previous post, I examined whether the B-21 bomber being developed by the US Air Force could be a viable long-range strike option for Australia. It would provide our air force with immense capability. Of course, there’s the issue of whether the US would sell it. Recent comments by US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross are about as anodyne as they come, but the US’s and Australia’s interests overlap fundamentally in our acquiring it.

Yet that capability comes at immense cost. Without the government providing tens of billions of additional cash concentrated in the second half of the 2020s, the B-21 would blow the Defence Department’s investment plan apart. It could probably only be done by cancelling at least one of Defence’s current megaprojects.

We can debate whether the B-21 is a better capability or a more manageable risk proposition for Australia than the Hunter-class frigate or Attack-class submarine—and my vote wouldn’t automatically go to the maritime capabilities—but that ship has already sailed. The B-21 option sits for now in the unaffordable column. However, we shouldn’t consign it forever to the inconceivable column.

But let’s take a step back. While there are good reasons to consider a long-range strike capability, does it need to be at the level provided by the B-21? As part of the US nuclear triad, the B-21 is designed to be extremely stealthy and survivable so that it can penetrate the world’s densest air-defence networks. It’s also designed to carry massive amounts of ordnance so that the USAF can obliterate an adversary’s power-projection capabilities (for example, Chinese ports, airfields and missile facilities near Taiwan).

That’s not necessarily what Australia needs to do. In fact, bombing a nuclear-armed power’s homeland is asking for trouble. And I’m certainly not advocating getting a bomber as a Trojan horse for an Australian nuclear capability. Rather, we would be seeking to complicate an adversary’s operational planning by letting them know that wherever they operated within a 3,000- to 4,000-kilometre radius of Australia, they would be exposed to attack. And importantly we could do it anywhere, anytime, again and again—something that submarines can’t do.

To do that, we don’t necessarily need the capability provided by the B-21. Long range would be essential, but maybe not the 5,000+ kilometres of the B-21. Greater payload than the F-35 is a must, but it doesn’t have to be the 100 or so JDAMs the B-21 will carry. A high degree of stealth would be necessary, but not the level required to get in and out of Beijing or Moscow. Remember Norman Augustine’s XVth law: ‘The last 10% of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.’

So what we are looking for is the Goldilocks bomber—something with longer range and greater payload than the F-35, but without the eye-watering cost of the B-21. Something like a 21st-century version of the F-111, perhaps. (It’s possible that we may not need an aircraft to deliver the necessary effects; missiles might do the job and this series will get to that in due course.)

The trouble is, Goldilocks anythings can be hard to find. One of the problems with Defence’s acquisition processes has been trying to develop solutions tailored to be just right, rather than good enough. But is there even a good enough?

There certainly isn’t a direct analogy of the F-111. And the joint strike fighter program shows that developing a manned combat aircraft from scratch is massively expensive and takes a long time.

One option could be an ‘arsenal plane’—a large aircraft, possibly a converted commercial airliner or military transport like the C-17, that can carry a lot of ordnance. It’s simply a bomb truck, but for long-range stand-off munitions. The US actually has one already in the B-52, which can launch long-range stand-off weapons against defended targets and deliver mass ordnance directly on undefended ones. There’s a reason why the US is keeping the B-52 after it retires the much younger B-1 and B-2 fleets. But nobody seems to be working on converting an airliner to a bomber, and in any conflict we’d want our C-17s doing their airlift role.

There’s also a conceptual problem with the arsenal plane for our purposes. Since it isn’t stealthy, it needs to operate in tandem with an aircraft like the F-35. The fighter would operate far ahead of the arsenal plane which carried a large magazine of long-range munitions to be cued by the F-35’s sensors. So, in practice, it wouldn’t provide any greater range than the F-35, which gets us back to where we started.

That leaves a potential unmanned aircraft. The role we’re looking at is one that UAVs would be well suited to fill. Yet, strangely, efforts to develop a long-range strike UAV have been fitful and there is nothing on the market. For example, the US Navy started a program for an unmanned surveillance and strike aircraft and both Boeing and Northrop Grumman developed designs with varying degrees of stealth. But the Pentagon then decided the role of the aircraft would primarily be air-to-air refuelling.

There’s also the ‘airpower teaming system’—aka the ‘loyal wingman’—that Boeing is developing with Australia. Despite the high-profile unveiling earlier this year, details are sketchy. The aircraft appears to be moderately stealthy and has a payload bay that could potentially carry weapons, but probably not the quantity needed. The range figures that have been mentioned are substantial, but if the concept of the Boeing drone is to operate with manned aircraft, its own range is irrelevant and we will still be tied to the range of the F-35. But if Australia were to develop an unmanned strike aircraft, there are potentially some start points to build on.

Despite Defence’s relatively conservative approach to autonomous systems, it does appear to have considered the possibility of autonomous combat aircraft; the 2016 integrated investment program states that ‘replacement [of the Super Hornet] could include either a fourth operational squadron of Joint Strike Fighters or possibly a yet to be developed unmanned combat aerial vehicle’. And for once there’s substantial funding that could be used, with $6–7 billion budgeted in the second half of the 2020s to pay for it.

A long-range strike UAV would be a very different beast from a cheap, disposable tactical drone and would cost millions. However, the development timelines and costs for unmanned systems can be substantially less than for manned system, because there are no crews that have to be kept alive in the face of all threats and environmental factors.

So it might be possible for Australia to go it alone, in cooperation with a US prime contractor that has already gotten half the way there. And if you build it, other customers could come. But that would require Defence making a big bet on an uncertain pathway.

That’s not something Defence likes to do.