Could the new nuclear-armed bomber be an unmanned drone?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A potential new type of U.S. Air Force nuclear-capable aircraft is causing some concerns due to it’s ability to conduct missions as an unmanned drone.
In a report published Wednesday, Kelsey D. Atherton of Popular Science said that there is a chance the “secretive and long-running” Long Range Strike Bomber project to develop next-gen nuclear-armed bombers could produce aircraft that are optionally manned.
“Sounds pretty terrifying, right? Well, despite years of advancement in unmanned technology, military brass isn’t comfortable trusting a drone with nuclear weapons just yet, even as they develop the bomber of the future,” she said, noting that nearly half of the current Air Force fleet is comprised of B-52 bombers that first entered service back in 1961.
Only two pure bombers developed since the introduction of the B-52 are currently in service: the supersonic B-1 Lancer, and the iconic stealthy black wedge known as the B-2 Spirit, Atherton said. All three vehicles were designed to carry nuclear weapons long distances, and they played an integral part of Cold War-era military planning, but they have been de-emphasized since then.
Enter the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). The Air Force submitted a request for proposal for the project to the industry back in July, anticipating that a contract would be rewarded in spring 2015. It called the new bomber “a top modernization priority for the Air Force” and said that it would allow the US military “to hold any target at risk at any point around the world.”
“The LRS-B will be an adaptable and highly-capable system based upon mature technology,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “We have established an achievable and stable set of requirements that should make this capability a hallmark for the future. We’ve set a realistic target cost… and have a procurement strategy which allows us to affordably field a new bomber fleet. The program’s strategy will ensure we get the best possible deal for the taxpayer.”
The new bomber will be a long-range, highly survivable aircraft that can be refueled in the air, and will come with that the Air Force called “significant” nuclear and conventional weaponry.
Last Friday, Popular Science met with Pentagon officials to discuss the project, and asked if the LRS-B could ever be fully unmanned. An senior defense official told Atherton that the military did not anticipate using drones in the dynamic, contested battlegrounds where a nuclear-armed bomber could potentially fly.
While drone warfare is a topic on the minds of many Americans, the fact is that they have not been used much in contested airspace, Atherton said. This is partially by design and partially due to the limitations of the technology, as the US drone fleet is comprised primarily of slow bombers and scout crafts that are more suited for use in counter insurgency than traditional warfare.
“That’s as far as drone technology goes right now, but it doesn’t mean drones are limited to that role forever,” the Popular Science reporter said, noting that previous attempts to create unmanned nuclear bombers had to be abandoned due to “technical constraints.” While those problems have been overcome, the fears of nuclear-armed drones have not.
One major concern is the possibility of losing one of these unmanned vehicles to a hostile nation, similar to how Iran was able to capture a US surveillance drone in 2011. In addition, Atherton noted that military commanders could theoretically lose control over an unmanned, nuclear-armed plane. With these concerns, she said that even though the LRS-B could have the option to be unmanned, “for nuclear armed missions, it’s safe to assume pilots will always be on board.”
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