November 13, 2003

Bombing to Win (cheap)

In recent years, the spiraling cost of military acquisition in the U.S. has been a constant topic in 'the biz.' There's a (in)famous aphorism that if one continues the current trends in procurement and budgeting, in something like 2045 the entire U.S. Air Force will consist of a single fighter. (Hm, I need to find that reference.) While this is an extreme, the trend is undeniable - the F-14 Tomcat was one of the world's most expensive fighters (if not the most) when it debuted in the early 1970s, and it cost $30 million a copy. The latest version of the F-18 Hornet, the F-18 E/F 'Super Hornet', is a marginally improved version of the F-18 - which means it still has substandard legs and a mezzo-mezzo bombload - and its cost per unit has topped $70 million, by some estimates.

That's for a single-seat fighter. In the bomber world, things are even worse - the famed B-2 Spirit 'stealth bomber' is, depending on who you ask, anywhere from $414 million to $2 billion per plane. The name of the B-2, the Spirit, reflects the Air Force's recognition of the stress the aircraft placed on their credibility - especially with requisitions for the equally pricey F-22 Raptor upcoming. Each individual airplane is named 'Spirit Of (some U.S. State)' as a sop to the various politicians who supported the project.

There has been, in recent times, at least lip service towards the 'doing it cheaper' school of thinking. One of my favorite methods of cutting costs involves what a colleague of mine and I tend to call 'Air Octol.' Looking at the Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS), it is clear that the vast majority of bomb tonnage was dropped not by expensive B-1B Lancers or hypercostly B-2 Spirits, but by the venerable (and highly reliable) B-52 Stratofortress. These Korean-war-era airplanes have been given renewal after upgrade, and are now expected to be active in the U.S. force well past their 50th year of life, perhaps as far as 2035, when the flying aircraft will be approximately 70 to 75 years old.

The B-52 is, essentially, a militarized version of the 707. Not the same airframe, but Boeing designed them nearly simultaneously, and their size and eventual load capacity ended up not dissimilar. The B-52 has received engine upgrades, with others in the planning pipeline, giving it more efficient turbofan engines and modern electronics.

Our proposal is this: Rather than build extremely expensive 'high capability' bombers like the B-2, or 'supersonic capable low-altitude penetrators' like the B-1, why not just build replacement B-52s? Better yet, why not take an airframe which is already available in large numbers, has an extremely varied and broad maintenance availability, and convert it?

In short, why not build a 747 bomber variant?

The freighter versions of the Boeing 747 have been tuned and iterated over multiple designs for efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reliability. They have massive carrying capacity as well as ample space and power for electronics (modern flight entertainment systems being what they are, much less modern avionics). A fully-equipped 747, kitted out for passenger service, can be had these days brand new for under $200 million. Without any interior amenities, the price drops to approximately $150 million. Why not take advantage of the economies of scale in production of the airframe and build 40 or 50 new bombers?

One common argument is that the airframe and hull of the jetliner, built for different weight distribution than a bomber, are not able to handle the stresses of weapons loading. My response: freight in a 747 is loaded in standard containers, each of which can weigh over a ton loaded. With the most common weapons airdropped from bombers being 1000 and 2000-lb guided bombs, this shouldn't be a problem. Furthermore, the freighter variant is designed to allow varying loads to be packed into the airplane. The total carrying capacity of the 747-400F is over 124 tons of cargo. Even allowing for 24 tons of that to allocate to dispensing systems and doors, that still gives the plane an awesome payload.

Another objection: you can't put bomb bay doors on a jetliner, and it can't handle sudden large changes in weight loading. Well, pshaw. I offer this (found at BoingBoing). If you can dump large quantities of water out of a moving jetliner, it doesn't seem that difficult (I acknowledge that I am not an aero eng) to drop discrete packets out of the beast. Furthermore, there are bomb bay doors clearly visible in that shot. :-)

So yes, this entire post was based on finding that picture and gleefully adding it to my stack of 'why not do this the cheap way?' evidence.

Posted by jbz at November 13, 2003 1:06 PM
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