The B-2 stealth bomber, assisted by midair refuelings, can fly a 44-hour mission to the other side of the world, take out targets using laser-guided smart munitions, then sneak out of enemy territory undetected. Yet it runs on Intel 286 processors -- state of the art in 1982, but these days, not so much.
Yes, the Air Force's stealth-bomber fleet is aging. By 2037, the Air Force plans to build a large, supersonic stealth bomber that can relieve the B-2 of duty. In the meantime, though, the military needs a stopgap, which is why it wants to build about 100 aircraft like the one you see here: the Next Generation Bomber, set to arrive in 2018.
Boeing and Lockheed are currently working together on a design for the bomber, in competition with Northrop Grumman. The Air Force won't announce the full list of final specifications for the new plane until later this year, but the basics are clear. This should be a subsonic craft capable of flying up to 2,000 miles before refueling from an airborne tanker, while carrying between 14,000 and 28,000 pounds of ordnance, possibly including nuclear weapons.
The bomber will use the same bat-wing shape of a B-2, which means no tail to reflect radar signals, and improvements in two key areas -- surface design and surface coating -- could give the new bomber a radar signature as small as one tenth that of a mosquito. (Today's stealth bombers are believed to appear on radar screens as being about the size of a small bird.) Advanced computer modeling will make it possible to design shapes (sure to be kept classified) that can disappear even more effectively from radar screens. Then there's the plane's surface. The B-2 uses a rubbery skin that contains tiny beads coated with ferrite; radar waves induce a magnetic field in the coating that converts the radio energy to heat. The problem is, this coating is fragile and easily damaged by bad weather. The Next Generation Bomber will have a radar-absorbent coating that can withstand rough flight conditions.
The new craft could also have a major defensive advantage over today's bombers -- fighter-jet capabilities drawn from the F-22 Raptor. Air-to-air missiles would defend the bomber from attacking aircraft. Possible onboard microwaves or laser weapons could destroy incoming missiles or radar stations on the ground. For particularly dangerous missions in which stealth is less of a concern, the bomber could fly at the center of a protective "wolf pack"; this group of fighter jets, drones and guided missiles will travel in formation around the bomber, organizing automatically by sending signals to one another using radar and satellites.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.