So today I want to take a look at the concept of a "regional bomber" for the RAF. The idea has been kicking around for a while in one form or another, though mostly it is an invention of the Internet as opposed to a serious plan considered by the armed forces. Or at least, that we know of.
And naturally such a concept draws a lot of heated debate. On the one hand some proponents argue that it would increase the reach and capability of the RAF, allowing them to hit targets at a much greater distance with a much heavier payload. Some critics meanwhile claim it's a needless waste, a vanity project that is designed to hold back the development and deployment of aircraft carriers while offering little in the way of a genuine capability upgrade.
I'm inclined to side with the critics, but not because I believe it is some nefarious scheme by the RAF to hold down the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). I'm just not that convinced that the RAF needs such a capability and certainly not now in the era of constrained budgets.
For as long aircraft have been in military use, people have been dreaming up ways to get the most utility out of them. At first the primary advantage of aircraft - whether fixed wing or balloon in variety - was the ability to fly almost unchallenged above the battlefield, surveying the enemy positions and collecting valuable intelligence.
The movements of the enemy could be observed and reported back to friendly forces. The location of enemy artillery that was not visible from the ground could be recorded and passed along to friendly artillery to fire at. Even the fall of shot could be observed and then adjusted from the air.
The advantages of aerial surveillance also pointed to the obvious need to prevent the enemy from replicating this ability. As such the pursuit fighter was born, designed to hunt down and destroy enemy observation aircraft. As both sides began employing fighters, so the fighters also became concerned with shooting down each other, in order to protect their own observation assets.
It didn't take much longer for someone to figure out that an aircraft flying over enemy territory need not just report back what it found. If it could be armed with small bombs of some form, then it could take direct and immediate action against the enemy in question.
The natural extension of this philosophy pointed towards planned attacks against the rear areas of the enemy line... and beyond to their cities. While some attempts were made at this during the first world war using airships, it wasn't until the 1920's and the rise of Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet that the concept of "strategic bombing" really took hold.
Douhet advocated the indiscriminate dropping of high explosive bombs on civilian population centres to cause some initial damage, followed by incendiary weapons to set alight the partially damaged structures, then the dropping of poisoned gas to finish (which he hoped would prevent firefighters from tackling the blaze).
It was believed at the time that such "Terror Bombing" would strike such fear, anger and outrage into the civilian population of an enemy nation, that they would surely turn against their own government and demand an end to the war immediately, before ground forces even had a chance to fully mobilise.
World War Two
The reality of war was to prove very different. Oddly enough people didn't take very kindly to being bombed out of their homes and as a result "Terror Bombing" usually had the complete opposite affect to that intended; civilian populations were galvanised to support their leaders, not least because the pictures of bombed out homes and raging fires in the cities provided ample propaganda opportunities.
(Whether the use of IED's in places like Afghanistan and Iraq has had a greater impact on turning public opinion against a war than terror bombing ever did is a debate that might lead to some interesting conclusions).
For the British part strategic bombing was lead by the RAF's bomber command. Equipped with a variety of twin and four engined bombers, the command took the war to Germany on its own turf, attacking targets of perceived value to the German war effort.
This eventually led Air Marshall Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, to the conclusion that the German people were a valuable asset in their own right and as such were to be targeted as part of the wider campaign against the German war machine. The vanguard of such operations proved to be the Avro Lancaster, a four engined development of the previously unsuccessful Avro Manchester.
The Lancaster could carry a payload of up to 22,000 lbs deep into German territory. Against cities it often carried the 4,000 lb "Cookie" bomb along with a payload of incendiary weapons. The "Cookie" would often blast off the roofs of buildings, creating holes for the incendiary rounds to fall into.
For attacking factories, rail yards or similar targets, the Lancaster could carry 14x 1,000 lb general purpose bombs. Later weapons included the 12,000 lb "Tallboy" and 22,000 lb "Grand Slam" bombs designed for use against hardened targets, and the 9,000 lb "Upkeep" bouncing bomb, used in the famous "Operation Chastise" by 619 Squadron against dams in the Ruhr Valley.
The Lancaster then was basically the epitome of a British bomber at the time. Lighter, fighter type aircraft like the Spitfire, Hurricane and Typhoon could barely carry a few small bombs, and even that impacted on their already short range. The only aircraft that came close to combining modest size with decent range and a reasonable punch was the De Havilland Mosquito, which could carry a 4,000 lb payload out to ranges of about 1,000 miles.
Cold War - Present
Since then a number of significant evolutions have taken place in the world of aerial bombing that have shifted the emphasis back towards smaller aircraft.
The first of these was the jet engine. Although small aircraft still have a limited fuel capacity, the much higher cruising speeds permitted by jet engines have stretched the range that smaller aircraft can cover while also carrying a modest bomb load.
This range increase has been supplemented by the concept of aerial refuelling, which permits aircraft to top up their fuel levels mid-flight from large tankers. In 2011, Tornado's of the RAF flew missions from RAF Marham in Norfolk to attack targets in Libya, missions that were aided by mid-flight aerial refuelling.
Perhaps most critical though has been the evolution of the bombs themselves.
During WW2 attacks against specific targets required large numbers of bombers, each carrying a significant payload of bombs. Aiming was something of an art form and it often required a huge number of bombs to be dropped just to guarantee a single hit on the target in question.
By comparison modern weapons such as the laser guided Paveway series and the American GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) have increased bombing accuracy to levels that WW2 bomber pilots could only dream of.
It's not quite reached the one target/one bomb level, but it's getting close. A modern fighter can drop a 2,000 lb bomb onto a building with as much as a 90% confidence that it will hit the target (weather conditions permitting). With this level of accuracy, the need for a large package of aircraft carrying 10+ bombs each is questionable.
The argument for a long range regional bomber thus boils down to two main strands;
1 - The ability to hit multiple targets in one pass, at very long ranges.
2 - The ability to loiter for a long duration over friendly forces, executing multiple calls for Close Air Support (CAS).
Point one originates from the fact that was is good for the Goose is also good for the Gander. Yes, small aircraft can make use of aerial refuelling. But so can much larger aircraft too. And the larger aircraft should need less refuelling for a given distance, while also being able to fly longer stints between refuelling (which is most important for the final leg to and from the target).
One example/argument that I've seen come up has been that of the Black Buck raids conducted by RAF Vulcans against targets on the Falkland Islands during the unlawful Argentine invasion in 1982. There is a case to argue that a smaller aircraft would have required a larger number of refuelling's, and would not have been able to drop as much ordnance on the target.
The Tornado's that struck at Libya from RAF Marham in 2011 are believed to have refuelled 3 times on the outward journey of around 1,500 miles, which resulted in two Storm Shadow missiles being fired per aircraft (1,000 lb warhead). The distance from Ascension Island (where the Black Buck raids were launched) to the Falklands Islands is around 4,000 miles, requiring seven outbound top ups for the Vulcan which then dropped 21x 1,000 lb unguided bombs onto the target.
The implication of this is that a large bomber should be able to drop a much greater amount of ordnance over a similar distance to a smaller aircraft, or carry a similar payload (perhaps just 2-4 bombs to strike one target) over a much greater distance.
While that implication may be true, the real question is how often does that capability requirement crop up?
One of the UK's great strengths has been its connections around the world with various foreign governments. As a result, seldom does the UK find itself on operations somewhere without access to certain air and naval bases reasonably close by. Range is seldom a huge issue.
The Falkland Islands might be one of the few exceptions, and even then we're talking about one theatre of operations that right now is not very high on the "likely to happen" list. Sometimes I think the only reason that case is brought up is because it's one of the only cases that actually has anything approaching a merit to it.
The idea of hitting multiple targets in one pass has perhaps more merit to it. A regional bomber carrying say 12x 2,000 lb bombs could perhaps do the work of 6 separate, smaller attack aircraft. But such an attack often requires penetration of very hostile airspace, which may not be entirely suitable for such a large aircraft, especially if it's required to stay in the high threat area for an extended period of time in order to identify and attack multiple targets.
The counter argument to that counter argument would be the use of cruise missiles. Weapons such as Storm Shadow can provide stand off attack ability, allowing aircraft to engage fixed targets from up to 100 miles away, without having to fly over the target zone.
A large bomber style aircraft could conceivably carry a number of these type of weapons externally on pylons (like the American B-52) and/or internally in bomb bays. Given that fighters like Typhoon and Tornado can only carry two each, a bomber carrying 8 such weapons effectively replaces four smaller aircraft.
This argument of numbers (and thus cost) will be touched on later.
The second point in favour of heavy bombers is their long endurance when based relatively close to the area of operations, or when able to be refuelled close to the area of operations.
This capability was most notably demonstrated in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. American and British operatives working alongside the Northern Alliance were able to call in air strikes from aircraft such as B-52's and B-1's circling over head.
In the modern age such aircraft can be fitted with sensors that allow pilots to zoom in on the ground below and identify targets, which they can then "paint" with onboard lasers for guiding in bombs like the Paveway series.
They can also accept GPS coordinates sent up to them from Forward Air Controllers (FAC) on the ground. These coordinates can be programmed into bombs like the JDAM and then released. It was a situation similar to this that reportedly almost got current Afghan President Hamid Karzai killed, when an attached US FAC changed the battery of his GPS device, which reset to the his current location, a location that was then sent up to the aircraft overhead!
Whether that story is true or not, the campaign in general helps demonstrate the ability of large bombers to loiter at low speeds over an area of interest for many, many hours, laden with multiple bombs and thus capable of responding to multiple requests for air support from ground troops, including the ability to hit multiple positions as part of one request.
This - I have to admit - is quite a unique capability that offers a big advantage to ground forces, but we already have a number of assets that are capable of providing close air support, albeit requiring the rotation of fresh aircraft or a trip off to meet an air tanker every few hours.
Fundamentally I think this is where the regional bomber concept begins to collapse.
This is not your fathers armed forces, nor your grand fathers. The British military is contracting, not expanding, and money is at a premium. With many capabilities such as Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) having been lost and in need of replacement, it makes the case for the regional bomber concept hard to pursue.
Not least because it will cost a lot of money. Regional bombers are not something that anybody, even the Americans, are building right now. The options of how to go about generating such a system basically come down to three lines; buying older bombers from the US, converting an existing aircraft of sufficient size, or designing and building one from scratch.
The first option would require the UK to purchase B-52 or B-1 bombers from the US. I do not think it's realistic to propose buying B-2 "Spirit" aircraft, as I doubt the US is keen to sell them, despite the budget relief that would come from dispensing with their high running costs.
And frankly I don't see the US selling B-52's or B-1's either. Both bombers were designed originally for the nuclear mission and since then the US has cut numbers of B-52's in accordance with treaty obligations, while having spent money to upgrade the remaining fleet. I can't see them then just selling off these assets after investing so much in them.
Designing a bomber from scratch doesn't seem an especially viable option either. After all the money invested in the Nimrod MR4A program that ultimately went nowhere, I can't see any government agreeing to spend the billions of pounds that would be needed to get a fresh design up and running, especially as the production run would be quite limited.
That only leaves the conversion of an existing large aircraft design as an option and even that is fraught with problems.
Basically it would have to involve some kind of airliner conversion. The RAF is just now taking the A330 into service as a tanker and conceivably you could convert such an aircraft (new purchase) by adding under wing pylons and turning the front cargo bay and/or the rear cargo bay into a bomb bay, but this would be an expensive modification to an aircraft that already costs over £150 million each. Add on more if you want a refuelling probe added.
Likely the range and payload capability would be quite impressive. The thing about the A330 is that as an airliner it's designed and optimised for cruising at over 500 mph for long periods, meaning that it's inherently long legged and relatively cheap to run.
The problem however with it being an airliner is that it's absolutely not optimised for operations in hostile airspace. Defensive aids suites can only do so much to mitigate the fact that you have a very large aircraft that was never designed to go into a warzone, with two very large, exposed turbofans making it a beacon of sorts for enemy radars.
The other possibly viable option shares the same advantages and problems, that being a conversion of the P-8 Poseidon, itself a military conversion of the Boeing 737-800.
The Poseidon was designed to replace the PC-3 Orion as the primary MPA for the US Navy. Capable of carrying up to six Standoff Land Attack Missiles (SLAM) externally, and another 4 internally in the rear bomb bay, the Poseidon already has form as a weapons carrying platform.
The UK's Storm Shadow is a longer, slightly wider weapon than the SLAM, but it's not inconceivable that a Poseidon could carry it, or other bombs. But it is still another question mark for now and an A330 conversion would likely have room for a bigger payload.
The saving grace if you will for Poseidon is that the UK needs a new MPA and Poseidon is certainly one option to meet that requirement. Purchasing additional "regional bomber" variants would provide a degree of commonality, and it's possible the two might end up interchangeable to some degree.
Overall though I'm not ecstatic about the idea, or even the whole Regional Bomber concept in general. At a time when budgets are constrained and the air force is dwindling, I think spending on a regional bomber would be a waste of time and money that would serve to only further degrade the flexibility and numbers of the RAF.
After all, while one regional bomber may be able to flatten a particular target with multiple weapons, numbers could work against the concept. You're not going to have 50 of these things entering service. You'd be lucky if you got ten.
With maintenance issues and the need to potentially provide support to multiple UK operations, the force would be spread so thin that you might even end up with just one or two aircraft being worked hard covering a future operation like that over Libya, and without the capability to swing roles when needed like smaller aircraft can.
The ability to deploy multiple weapons on one target and loiter for long periods might end up being off set by the need for support in more than one place at any one time, or quick reaction between two targets, something which a larger number of faster, smaller aircraft could cope with much better.
I could perhaps support a "deep strike" program to replace Tornado, something that has been suggested in the past as the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS), but I suspect and hope it would be a less ambitious, more compact design.
One possibility is the Taranis UAV by BAE Systems (due to achieve its first flight in the first quarter of 2013), but I question the long term viability of a UAV solution, given the not unreasonable concerns that many countries may have with an unmanned drone carrying bombs flying over through their airspace on the way to its target.
Perhaps a program to produce an aircraft similar to the F-111, which proved highly successful in combat operations, but without the complexity and expense of aspects such as the variable geometry wing might be in order (By reusing a lot of existing equipment and parts, the F-117 Nighthawk program actually came in a lot cheaper and quicker than many people might otherwise believe).
Really though the future of UK strike seems to be invested in the F-35 Lightning II. With the B version on order for the Navy and possibly the RAF in a joint force, it would make sense for the RAF's FOAS requirement to be filled by something like the Lightning A or C.
That would provide a stealthy aircraft, with a reasonable degree of commonality with the B version, and capable of delivering a solid punch into enemy territory.
As for the Regional Bomber? I just don't see it ever happening and couldn't support it if it did.