Revival of the heavies

It appears the B-2 Spirit will get company in shape of a Chinese counterpart and a Russian counterpart.

This means there might be a comeback for heavy and long-range bombers. The Su-34 was no such thing, and the difference may become important. The U.S.A.F also looks at a new bomber, which is supposedly also meant to become a long-range reconnaissance and generally a powerful sensor platform. I doubt they will pull it off given their existing inventory, but the rumours from China and Russia appear more realistic to me.

New bomber types would be a very interesting development because there's an unlikely yet real history of quite heavy (at least medium) bombers being exported to small powers. India, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Indonesia operated Tu-16, Tu-22 or Tu-22M bombers during the Cold War.

Egyptian Tu-16 Badgers
The military utility was questionable without the Soviet's anti-shipping missile and nuclear weapon stocks, but this has definitively changed. A single bomber could ruin a middle-sized countries' powerplant infrastructure (and thus economy) in a single sortie using quite affordable off-the-shelf guided glide bombs.
The proliferation of such a devastating capability might make it necessary for non-NATO small powers to maintain a rather high air force readiness and air policing, a good early warning spy network and/or effective area air defence missiles. The latter could sooner or later bust some airliner on accident.
Such precautions might be provoked in a huge radius, as one such bomber accompanied by a tanker could fly transoceanic missions (it wouldn't need to return, after all).

'We' in the West have become accustomed to a world in which threatening capabilities or non-allied powers are rare. The DF-21D anti-ship missile and even by comparison ridiculous speedboats in the Persian Gulf were able to freak many of 'us' out. Imagine what the prospect of a nightly knock-out blow to your countries' infrastructure dealt by a power thousands of kilometres away would feel. The blow could even be internationally perceived as rather economical than a warlike - kind of the hardware version of a malicious software campaign.

I wonder whether heavy bombers of the 2020's would be exported to small powers, and whether they would provoke great defence, deterrence and diplomatic (alliance- and umbrella-seeking) reactions.



  1. Why even have special purpose heavy long-range bombers if you are going to use cruise missiles and long range glide bombs most of the time . Might as well use large transport aircraft and investing a fraction of the money it would cost for one long range bomber on developing a method of deploying the bombs and missiles out of the back of a transport .
    Replace the back doors some kind of pod that could slide in the back with a built in bomb bay .
    i know this isn't a new concept , it was thought about decades ago , but its never happened , and for a smaller military it would make much more sense than buying big bombers that are never used .

    1. It's an option, but it's one that could be kept low profile and would thus not provoke strong countermeasures.

  2. "I wonder whether heavy bombers of the 2020's would be exported to small powers" - S O

    I doubt it. In order to make them an effective political instrument (which a heavy bomber undoubtedly is), they'll want to make it a stealthy, high-tech aircraft, for extra shock-and-awe effect. This would be prohibitively expensive for smaller nations. It might even be too expensive for the major powers.

    If there was some reversal in this engineering trend, however, I agree with you.

    A lot of nations already have something more easily converted; maritime patrol aircraft. It wouldn't be too big a challenge to convert an MPA design into a bomber. Most have internal bomb bays.

  3. Prohibitively expensive?
    http://tinyurl.com/cnaw9yx !

    Countries that could afford a stealth bomber with a total contract cost divided by qty of planes of USD 200 million (FY 2012) in 2020:

    Brazil, at least four Persian Gulf states, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand and possibly some more if they improve their economies somewhat. I omitted countries which could afford, but would have no incentive like South Africa.
    Which location on this planet wouldn't be in range if those countries bought heavy bombers?

    Newly prosperous countries have usually less of the prosperity firmly distributed and are often capable of mobilising much more money per capita for big projects than do more established, richer countries.

  4. I hope you're being sarcastic on the first link...

    The flyaway costs of the aircraft isn't the most expensive side of it. It's the operational costs, the costs of training operators (which for some countries is a significant challenge, regardless of economy). And then there's building the necessary facilities to store and service these aircraft. The B-2 needs an environmentally controlled hangar, and the F-35 is so noisy that some airbases can't be used on a regular basis (although that does not necessarily have to do with stealth technology, in fairness).

    Brazil has been postponing their selection for a replacement for the F-5 for a few years now, and as far as I know have no intentions of getting heavy bombers. The Persian Gulf states I can see getting such bombers, but several of these air forces are flying clubs for rich kids and monarchs. I can also see a need/want for heavies in the Pacific, but I don't know where they'd get them from. Pakistan can get them from China, and probably would, but their beef is primarily with India, who could themselves possibly get them aswell. Why, I don't know, as global range isn't of particular concern to either, and neither of them have heavies at the moment.

    I agree that the US is unlikely to bring out a new stealth heavy. In Russia, there are doubts over whether a stealth bomber can be produced. The Chinese are probably able, but their stealth offers are not heavy bombers. In fact, the only heavy bomber they have in production is this (AFAIK);
    Aside from that there's the J-20, but I wouldn't class that as a heavy bomber in the traditional sense.

    All that being said, a large, heavy stealth bomber makes a lot more sense than a stealth multi-role fighter, at least from a technical perspective. And since military matters seem to evolve in circles, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a revival in heavy bombers, stealthy or not; we've grown accustomed to dropping large payloads from medium altitude in uncontested airspace. If anything, a heavy bomber would be effecient for this, and could well (unfortunately) reinforce the old belief that the "bomber will always get through".

    Sorry for the long-winded comment.

    1. You didn't pay enough attention to the fact that this blog post was about developments, not about the market right now.

      Also, if Singapore thinks it can afford 75 Lightning II now, then this supports the assumption that a wide range of newly industrialised or resource-rich countries can afford heavy bombers in the 2020's.

      The B-2's maintenance troubles are specific to the RAM used on it. There are plenty claims that modern RAM (not 80's stuff) don't have the same hangar queen qualities.

    2. Fair enough. The way the market looks now, however, suggests that VLO stand-off munitions might be more popular. And with the multi-role affinity governments have such munitions seem a favourable option. They cannot offer the striking range, of course, and they may well be more expensive in the long run. Then again, the best option is rarely the one taken, it seems.

      I'm assuming they've either been offered the aircraft at the low cost originally projected. I wouldn't be surprised if they've been "convinced" either. It has happened before in that project.

      That's probably true, but they've had challenges with the F-35 in this respect; the skin appears to "melt off" or some such. The exact cause of this I don't know.

      Like I wrote in my previous comment, from a technical perspective a heavy stealth bomber is more useful than a small attack aircraft. On the other hand, heavy bombers are strategic in nature, and as opposed to fighter-bombers (stealthy or not), carry different political ramifications. Fighter-bombers are not controversial, and their need can easily be proved. Not so much with strategic bombers, as they essentially require different defence and foreign policies.

      This is obviously not a problem for a few of the states you mentioned. I don't see countries like Singapore* or Thailand adopting that kind of stance in the near future.

      *I doubt the hosts of their overseas airbases would take kindly to them basing strategic bombers in their countries.