In the past few weeks, the Pentagon and its major contractors have been trotting out their designs for the aircraft of the future -- from a stealthy, hypersonic spy plane to a combat, carrier-hopping drone to a futuristic bomber. But ironically, none of these planes will likely define the U.S. armed forces of, say, 2030. It's the wild weapons they'll carry that could be military game-changers.
The crown jewel is the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), being designed under tight secrecy. LRS-B is supposed to replace either the B-52 or B-1 or some combination thereof (nobody's quite sure yet). Designed for penetrating strike and nuclear weapons, it is this bomber that is meant to lead any bombing campaign, slipping into enemy airspace undetected and dropping bombs on the most heavily-defended targets. Northrop Grumman (which designed the B-2) and a Boeing-Lockheed team are both designing competitors, but details are scarce -- nearly everything about the program is classified.
The F-35, currently under production, is supposed to become the backbone of the USAF fleet. By 2030 the oldest operational aircraft will have a decade in service, and new versions might still be rolling out of the factory. It's designed to be the new catch-all, a performer of all but master of none. But as the most modern aircraft on the production line it can do things its predecessors can't, and it shows how the USAF is changing the way it fights.
The F-35 is stealthy, but it's not that stealthy. It won't be able to dip into enemy airspace unnoticed like the LRS-B will, so the focus is how to make it more effective from further away. The radar is designed to share detailed targeting information via datalink with other aircraft -- one F-35 can hang back and turn on its radar, which gives its position away to the target but keeps it far from danger, while another can sneak in and fire a missile without giving itself away.
More and more, those missiles are going to be smarter and capable of new things, not just blowing things up. Rather than risk people and valuable airplanes, why not just let the missile do the work? It's getting easier to pack missiles full of fuel and electronics, making them more like miniature drones than the old dumb-bombs. Some missiles, like Raytheon's new MALD-J, contain small radar jammers and can be fired almost 600 miles from the target.
Future versions could have electronic surveillance equipment, sending data back home, or even the means to inject viruses into computer networks. Also look forward to things like the Israeli IAI Harop, a hybrid missile/UAV that can circle overhead for long periods of time, waiting for a whiff of electronic scent and guiding itself in.
One promising development is the High-Speed Strike Weapon, a hypersonic ground attack missile, capable of launching from thousands of miles away and streaking towards the target too fast for anyone to hit. At least, that's the idea. At that speed it might not even need a warhead, destroying targets with sheer kinetic energy. The program is in its infancy, and sustained hypersonic flight is very tough -- but we'll see. Come 2030 there could be B-52s -- among the oldest aircraft in the inventory -- launching hypersonic cruise missiles by the dozen.
And what of the drones used so widely today? After Afghanistan winds down there will certainly not be a need for as many as we now have. But a potential Predator replacement, the MQ-X, is dead in the water, and while the USAF is closely watching the Navy's experiments with the X-47B carrier-hopping drone, there are no concrete plans to buy anything at the moment. But it's hard to imagine they wouldn't put those new capabilities onto UAVs, and indeed there are persistent rumors of secret bomb-carrying UAVs flying in the desert, but nothing concrete and verifiable has yet emerged.
All of those are good ideas, but the potential costs are enormous, and in the days of sequestration few people have the stomach to promote gigantic programs. Even next year's budgets are uncertain, and between the Pentagon's five-year planning frames and the regular shifts of their political sponsors, nobody really knows what programs will make it to 2030. It could be all of them. It could be just one. We'll have to wait and see.