Air Force Chief Wary of Pilotless Bomber

(May. 28) -The U.S. Air Force hopes soon to resolve the issue of whether there is a need for a new strategic bomber. The existing B-52 is shown above (Paul Crock/Getty Images).
(May. 28) -The U.S. Air Force hopes soon to resolve the issue of whether there is a need for a new strategic bomber. The existing B-52 is shown above (Paul Crock/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The need for a next-generation, long-range strike capability is the key issue that the U.S. Air Force wants to have resolved in the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said last week (see GSN, April 22).

In addition to determining whether a new bomber is needed, the review should consider what range and bomb load that aircraft should have, whether it should be manned or unmanned, be stealthy and be able to carry nuclear weapons, the Air Force's top officer said during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Schwartz said the Air Force believes a new bomber is necessary, but that Defense Secretary Robert Gates "was not comfortable with where we were on the next generation long-range strike." Gates removed from the Air Force's fiscal 2010 budget the requested funds to develop a new bomber that was to be operational by 2018.

Last week, Gates told lawmakers he is considering making the next-generation long-range bomber a pilotless aircraft. He said advances in unmanned technologies since the Air Force launched an effort to develop a bomber in 2006 were among the reasons he stopped the program.

Schwartz told his audience on May 21 that a new bomber "needs to be [very low observable]," have moderate range and payload and be nuclear capable, "and that means it probably should be manned." He suggested earlier that an unmanned cargo plane "is not that far-fetched," but he doubted if people would accept a passenger aircraft with no pilot. "We would have to think seriously" about having a nuclear-delivery aircraft without a pilot, the four-star general added.

Outside the review, Schwartz said his priorities were "first to get the nuclear enterprise right" -- a reference to the mishandling of nuclear weapons and components that led Gates to fire the previous Air Force chief and secretary -- and to take care of service personnel and their families, and the wounded (see GSN, Feb. 23).

Schwartz also emphasized "acquisition excellence," because "the reputation of the Air Force depends on how well we acquire systems." The previous Air Force leaders were faulted for failed acquisition of a new airborne tanker and a rescue helicopter.

May 28, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- The need for a next-generation, long-range strike capability is the key issue that the U.S. Air Force wants to have resolved in the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said last week (see GSN, April 22).