The US Air Force has bigger dreams even beyond the B-21 Raider stealth bomber or other stealth platforms like the F-35. The US Air Force is looking to develop a drone stealth bomber that could complement capabilities offered by America’s forthcoming B-21 Raider.
During a keynote speech delivered at the Air Force Association’s 2022 Warfare Symposium , the Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall revealed that the United States is exploring the idea of an uncrewed stealth bomber platform that could fly missions ahead of the optionally-crewed B-21 Raider to expand upon America’s deep penetration strike capabilities in hotly contested airspace. This new bomber platform would be expected to have “comparable range” to that of the new globe-spanning bomber, with payload capabilities to be determined in large part by price point.
While Kendall qualified this bomber concept as “more speculative” than other secretive programs like Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), he explained that the Air Force is currently in the “concept definition” stage of planning for it—in other words, they’re hashing out exactly what capabilities this platform will need and how best to go about fielding them.
This drone stealth bomber effort, Kendall explained, is a classified project that will only see acknowledgment in official discourse but will otherwise operate with very few details revealed to the public. Despite that, he anticipates funding for this new aircraft will begin with the branch’s 2024 budget proposal.
Skyborg and DARPA’s ACE program
In his remarks, Kendall highlighted how this new drone stealth bomber will leverage technologies developed within both Boeing’s Skyborg effort and DARPA’s recent ACE, or Air Combat Evolution, program.
Skyborg is an “autonomous aircraft teaming architecture” meant to pair crewed aircraft with a constellation of uncrewed drone platforms for support. These autonomous wingmen will take their cues from the human pilot and serve as an extension of the aircraft’s combat capabilities, flying ahead to serve as extended sensor nodes, engaging targets with onboard munitions, and even sacrificing themselves to protect the crewed aircraft.
“Military pilots receive key information about their surroundings when teamed aircraft with integrated autonomy detect potential air and ground threats, determine threat proximity, analyze imminent danger, and identify suitable options for striking or evading enemy aircraft.”
The ACE program, headed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is similarly all about pairing human operators with computers, but in a different medium. The Air Combat Evolution effort aims to place an advanced artificial intelligence in the cockpit with pilots to minimize cognitive load, sort of like a highly capable co-pilot. In a way, ACE is the logical extension of existing trends in fighter technology, which have long aimed to automate more and more of the aircraft’s operation to allow the pilot to focus on the fight at hand.
“ACE creates a hierarchical framework for autonomy in which higher-level cognitive functions (e.g., developing an overall engagement strategy, selecting and prioritizing targets, determining best weapon or effect, etc.) may be performed by a human, while lower-level functions (i.e., details of aircraft maneuver and engagement tactics) is left to the autonomous system.”
In 2020, the ACE program pitted a highly trained human F-16 pilot against an AI pilot created by Heron Systems in a virtual dogfight using only guns. The AI defeated the human an impressive five bouts in a row without ever taking a single hit, prompting many to claim AI may be ready to replace human operators in American fighters. However, the competition was conducted under strictly controlled circumstances inside a virtual environment. Despite the fanfare the victory secured for Heron’s AI, DARPA’s primary intent was to demonstrate the capability of AI as a viable addition to crewed fighter platforms.
Pairing crewed platforms with drones isn’t just for fighters anymore
While the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program (aimed at fielding a new air superiority fighter) remains shrouded in secrecy, Kendall re-emphasized that it isn’t one new aircraft being designed and built, but rather a “system of systems.” NGAD will include a crewed aircraft with a pilot onboard, alongside a variety of much lower cost uncrewed platforms like those envisioned by Skyborg. This would allow for a significant increase in payload capacity, sensor reach, survivability, as well as variety in mission payloads.
For instance, if multiple drone platforms are developed to fly in conjunction with NGAD, different platforms can specialize in different applications and then be paired with an aircraft prior to a mission, rather than having to swap out pods or even internal hardware on the fighter itself. NGAD fighters could be paired with drone platforms that specialize in electronic warfare, ground attack, air superiority, reconnaissance, or a combination of skills, all without adding weight or removing ordnance from the fighter itself.
Because these paired drones have no pilot onboard and cost less to produce, they can take greater risks than their crewed peers, and that’s exactly how a drone stealth bomber could be a significant value to those flying America’s B-21 Raider once it joins the service.
In his speech, Kendall laid out how he’d like to see this new drone stealth bomber come in at a price point of less than half that of the B-21 Raider, which currently sits at around $713.6 million per airframe. This figure, he cautioned, wasn’t established through complex analysis, but rather represents a figure that makes sense to him based on his experience.
“I’d love to have it be less than half. I’d love to have it be a quarter or an eighth,” he explained.
A drone stealth bomber would help tip the scales of power in the Pacific
The Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider is expected to be the most advanced stealth bomber ever when it enters service later this decade. A clear design successor to Northrop’s previous and highly successful B-2 Spirit, the Raider is expected to be smaller than its predecessor, with a payload capability expected to sit at around 30,000 pounds (10,000 less than the B-2), while offering broader capabilities and improved survivability in a 21st-century battlespace. The Air Force intends to procure at least 100 B-21s, which will replace its standing fleets of both B-2 Spirits and B-1B Lancer supersonic heavy payload bombers.
As we’ve discussed here at Sandboxx News before, the B-21 Raider may be the key to America’s ability to counter China’s aggressive expansion in the Pacific. China’s arsenal of anti-ship missiles, particularly long-range hypersonic weapons like the DF-ZF boost-glide vehicle, have created an “area denial bubble” extending more than a thousand miles from Chinese shores that American carriers can’t penetrate without being at risk of being sunk. This is a huge challenge for the U.S. Navy and American foreign policy, as the Navy’s carrier-capable fighters lack the range to engage Chinese targets from that far out. In other words, neither the Block III Super Hornet nor the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter could reach China without China having an opportunity to sink one of America’s supercarriers.
As such, the globe-spanning B-21 Raider would almost certainly play a vital role in the initial days of conflict with China if one were to break out. Stealth bombers would fly thousands of miles, refueling in mid-air as needed, to engage anti-ship weapon systems on Chinese shores to reduce the threat posed to America’s Nimitz and Ford-class carriers. But this effort wouldn’t be without substantial risk.
Stealth is not a singular technology that renders an aircraft “invisible” to radar, but rather an overlapping combination of technologies, production methodologies and combat tactics meant to delay detection and limit targeting. In other words, stealth aircraft are not as safe in contested airspace as they may seem thanks to decades of combat over nations without any appreciable air defenses to speak of. Stealth platforms are often still detectable via low-band radars, though these systems can’t produce a weapons-grade lock. A combination of radar and infrared tracking, (tracking the heat produced by a stealth jet’s engines) could, however, bring a stealth aircraft down. And that’s not the only way.
New anti-stealth radar systems like bi-static radars and multi-static radars, which separate the radar transmitter from the receiver, may reduce the effectiveness of radar-reflecting designs, and because radar-absorbent materials don’t fare well under the high heat associated with supersonic flight, adding a great deal of speed to deep-penetration bombers (like a stealthy B-1B, for instance) simply isn’t a feasible way to improve survivability if targeted. With a per-unit cost creeping up toward the $1 billion dollar mark, the Air Force can’t afford to lose many stealth bombers in the early days of a large conflict.
And that’s where a substantially cheaper drone stealth bomber that can fly ahead of the B-21 Raider could offer a huge strategic value. Raider crews could use these uncrewed bombers to target anti-ship weapons that are too well defended to risk engaging themselves, or they could engage air defense systems to allow for a safer route to the objective. Of course, at half the cost of a B-21, we’re still talking about a drone stealth bomber that costs as much as three or more F-35s, but again, the F-35 very likely couldn’t reach these targets to begin with.
Drones won’t make stealth bomber pilots history. They’ll make them the future.
It seems all but certain that uncrewed aircraft, both in combat and out, are the future of aviation, but it’s important to note that the Air Force has no plans to do away with human pilots. Despite the popular idea that AI is already advanced enough to take over for human operators in complex combat environments, most tests of these systems remain relegated to controlled virtual environments and established operational guidelines. As any fighter or bomber pilot who’s flown operational missions will tell you, there are no such things as controlled environments and mutually established operational guidelines in combat. In a real fight, the enemy gets a great deal of say in how things shake out.
While computers can withstand greater G forces than human operators, can process information more quickly and from a broader array of inputs, and can even respond to incoming threats faster than a human pilot, they still lack the nuanced decision-making processes we take for granted in our heads. That’s why, despite pop culture and social media trends so frequently pitting AI against human pilots, the Pentagon would much rather couple highly capable AI with highly capable human operators to create a best-of-both-worlds approach to air combat.
When asked if this new drone stealth bomber effort could lead to removing bomber pilots from the fold, Kendall didn’t make a clear assertion either way, highlighting that it’s important to explore other options while pointing out one of the crewed bomber’s most important strengths in a nuclear era.
“I don’t know. We’ve been doing bombers a long time. They’ve all been manned, and they’ve all been from the air. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do global strike from other means,” he said, but the “advantage of a manned bomber, though, is you can actually recall it, if you choose.”
Will AI eventually become so capable we can do away with humans on the battlefield altogether? It seems possible, but it almost certainly won’t be for decades to come. In the meantime, coupling the B-21 Raider with a drone stealth bomber that can support complex operations in a similar way to how Skyborg, ACE, and NGAD aim to change fighter air combat seems like a no-brainer, AI or otherwise.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News.