Is It Time to Bring Back the Medium Bomber?


I am going to start this post with a story about screwing!

A friend of mine is a joiner and of course takes his tools very seriously. Whereas your average DIY enthusiast might buy a cordless drill that doubles as a screwdriver a professional, whose livelihood depends on completing the job quickly and effectively, will invest in separate tools, because it is efficient to do so. It won’t simply be two cordless drills either, one will be a drill and the other an impact driver, whilst he might buy both from the same manufacturer to maximise on commonality in subsystems like batteries the fact is they will be different.

I asked my friend why he didn’t just buy one, or two drills, because to a layman, they superficially look the same.

His answer…

“One Job One Tool”

So what has this got to do with military equipment?

In our drive to relentlessly push down costs, rationalise on training, spares and maintenance etc we are moving to fewer types.

We no longer have one job one tool, but multiple jobs, one tool.

No longer do we have strike aircraft, ISTAR aircraft, air superiority aircraft and close air support aircraft. Instead of a Harrier, Buccaneer, Canberra, Jaguar, Tornado mix we are moving to a Typhoon and F35 fleet and in reality, it is possible that Typhoon might be the only fast jet aircraft in service doing the job of all these.

Ruthless commonality personified and it would ordinarily get my wholehearted support.

Whilst this might be good news on one side of the cost equation it might not be as good news on another. Tornado for example, has a shorter range than the aircraft it replaced.

The question we should ask is has this finance-driven ruthless commonality gone too far, are these cost savings illusory because we are moving towards a load of cordless drills, that do the screwing thing OK but not brilliantly, instead of a drill and a screwdriver.

The Tornado is a good case in point; it was designed to be a single-minded, low level, penetrating strike and interdiction aircraft and at that, it has no peers and never has. Over the years, as this mission became less and less needed we have adapted it to other roles, the F3 Air Defence variant and now, it is being used for close air support in Afghanistan. What we have done is maximised our use of a single aircraft type but you do have to wonder if it is the best tool for the job. I don’t want this to descend into a Harrier is better than the Tornado argument because that’s not what I am driving at.

In an ideal world, we would have retained both.

If you look at the most common missions that the RAF/FAA have been involved in recently it has been in an environment where the need to penetrate defended airspace is not top of the list. The pattern seems to be that air defences are degraded by submarine, ship and air-launched cruise missiles of various sorts and then strike and CAS has been carried out in a semi permissive environment.

I am not saying we do not need a penetrating strike aircraft at all; we just need it less and less.

We had an interesting discussion on the Jaguar 2 post from TMM about sub-standard aircraft getting pilots killed and in this context, the general opinion seemed to be that when you need to have a stand-up fight you don’t want it to be fair, so every last drop of performance is worth the cost, any cost.

Whilst this is very true for those instances when you need that last drop of performance the reality is these instances are becoming less and less and whilst we might reap the commonality rewards of using the high-end kit for low-end jobs the funding reality of a finite budget means we suffer from reduced quantities, the so-called procurement death spiral where the increasingly expensive kit can only be obtained in increasingly small quantities, which makes the unit cost go up and, you get the picture.

There comes a tipping point where ruthless commonality actually starts costing you real money because you are, to coin a phrase, doing your weekly shopping the Ferrari.

This leads me to the medium bomber.

There must surely come a point where the cost of using a range of equipment, even taking into account the penalty of developing and maintaining such a capability, is cheaper than using a single swing-role type.

I don’t know where this point would be and make no mistake, bringing a new design aircraft into service is pant wettingly expensive, but is it worth taking a serious look, I think so.

Speed; is never a bad thing, it allows you to react to calls for close air support, get out of threat envelopes and generally manage more tasks over a wider area but it does have a rather large penalty and that is fuel burn. To go fast needs lots of fuel and it is not a linear relationship, to achieve range and/or persistence needs lots of fuel and this means tanker support in many scenarios, which of course also need fuel and adds cost and complexity. The lack of speed is one of the principal disadvantages to using turboprop aircraft like the Super Tucano or AT-6, you can compensate with more aircraft but this just pushes costs into aircrew, ramp space provision and many other areas. Supercruise designs like the Typhoon can go supersonic without reheat and are therefore very efficient but the fuel burn rate is still significant.

However, in many scenarios very high speed is simply not used most of the time so by having a capability and not needing it there is a penalty.

Speed also pushes up design and integration costs but there is a happy medium, faster than a turboprop but slower than supersonic, i.e. Harrier speed.

Range and Persistence; like speed, never a bad thing but adding more fuel means smaller payload and less speed. Instead of carrying out a mission with 2 or 3 refuels we need an aircraft that can complete an average strike or CAS mission without refuelling.

Payload; to make aircraft aerodynamically efficient, to achieve high speed, they have to, in general, be thin and pointy. This reduces volume for fuel, mission systems and weapons. To compensate modern strike aircraft have external hardpoints from which we hang extra fuel, weapons, ECM and sensors equipment, this of course increases drag which increases fuel burn and reduces payload and range, it’s enough to make your head spin!

We have sacrificed much on the altar of speed

The same way that the Jaguar 2 post was a thought exercise on warming over an old design, I thought it would be interesting to have a go with another oldie, the Buccaneer. Whilst the Jaguar was positively a size 0 supermodel, the Buccaneer was a fat lass.

On the old carriers, space was at a premium and the Buccaneer needed wings, airbrake and nose folded in order to fit on the lifts but CVF is much larger.

The Buccaneer saw service in a number of operations but its highly successful swan song was in the Gulf in 1991, click here for a great account.

You see clips on the internet of showboating low level flypast but for RAF and especially FAA crews this was a normal day in the office, sustained high subsonic at 20ft, no problem

Instead of thinking small, sleek and fast, I am thinking slow and hefty; a transit van instead of a Ferarri. It might not be possible to fit the requirements into a Buccaneer sized airframe but that is the benchmark we should aim for or at least mimic the basic configuration.

A Few Design Considerations

Basic design; three tubes, Buccaneer style, middle one for stuff, outer two for engines, you get the picture!

Another way of looking at it is a much smaller, two-seat and twin-engined MRA4, with folding wings.

This presents a large front aspect cross-section so not very stealthy but in the words of Katherine Tate, ‘am a bovvered

If you look at the original Buccaneer, the bomb bay was actually quite modest in dimensions, comfortable for four thousand pounders but the basic configuration should be retained, just larger in size if needed.

This is not a version of the so-called transport bomber but would be a dedicated design.

Payload; in order to reduce drag the payload, as far as possible, should be carried in an internal bay. The maximum payload should be in the region of 6 to 8 tonnes at full fuel with all the additional systems fitted. Instead of pure weight the driver now is a number of weapons. As weapon precision improves, so the need for so many to achieve a given effect is reduced. The need to reduce civilian casualties has also resulted in a trend to smaller weapons but there are targets where a big bang is still needed and smaller weapons of course, means more weapons, although volume limitations might kick in before weight.

Wingtip stations should be able to carry defensive aids and self-defence missiles. These are generally low drag and need to be immediately available so external mounting is the sensible option. These would be for self defence only. ASRAAM would be the obvious choice and to provide some commonality with other aircraft, the same defensive pods pods. In service in the Gulf, Buccaneers were initially armed with Sidewinders for self defence but when the threat reduced they were dispensed with.

Like the Buccaneer, an incredibly useful capability would be the ability to act as a buddy tanker although the Buccaneer used a wing mounted pod and this restricted manoeuvrability.

The Buccaneer had an innovative rotary bomb bay door which made opening at speed much easier than with conventional doors and later models had a bulge fitted that incorporated a fuel tank. This configuration might be just as useful on a modern version and would also make loading and unloading much easier.

The payload bay should be the very model of modular flexibility, with multiple clip-in locations for cargo/fuel pods or weapon carriage racks.

The clip in racks could carry combinations of weapons depending on size and release restrictions. Because weapons would be dropped from the centreline, more or less, it would make release configuration a simpler proposition than asymmetric release of heavy weapons from wing pylons.

It might even be possible to carry 3 or 4 large weapons like Storm Shadow, either by vertical stacking or some form of rotary launcher, these would be detailed design issues of course and I don’t know whether it would be possible, especially vertical stacking, but the tantalising prospect of carrying 4 Storm Shadow or a possible future buy of the NSM is very interesting is it not?

With smaller weapons like Brimstone or Paveway IV is it really too ambitious to want to carry 16 or 8 respectively?

If this were achievable then one of these could displace 2 or more Tornados and in many missions, forgo the cost of tanker support as well.

Into the future the large bay might even allow directed energy weapons to be carried, sharks optional, freed from external pod constraints these possibilities are not as outrageous as might be thought.

Although the emitters of a large ECM system would need to be outside, the processing and power management could easily be mounted internally.

There are many payload possibilities.

Sensors; to the front and rear of the payload bay would be a protected equipment bay into which could be rack mounted the various processing, power conditioning and communications equipment modules needed. I am not advocating a walk in data centre but by upsizing the airframe access becomes less constricted, heat dissipation and power management become slightly easier and some growth space for future systems is assured.

Targeting pods are the size and shape they are, not because they need to be, but because they need to be to be carried externally. The active components, the imaging sensor for example, are relatively compact and could be fitted into a fairing to the front or rear of the payload bays with the processing equipment rack mounted in the avionics bays.

A basic off the shelf radar, communications and avionics fit could be incorporated.

Range/Endurance; optimised for medium altitude, out of the AAA threat envelope, it should be capable of at least 3,000 miles range and at shorter distances, an endurance of at least 4 to 5 hours. These could be extended with airborne refuelling and drop/internal tanks but in order to avoid compromising range it would be preferable to operate the aircraft in a clean wing configuration, only the self defence pods and AA missiles being carried externally. Drop tanks would enable greater range for self deployment or circumstances where the extra range is worth compromising payload for and a payload bay option should be a long range tank.

This long range tank could be fitted in a split configuration to provide flexibility, 2 for the long range or 1 for ‘additional range’ and reduced weapons carriage.

3,000 miles is purely a nominal target figure but as an illustration of a 1,500 mile round trip the map below shows some interesting possibilities.


Its not as simple as just flying 1,500 miles out and 1,500 miles back so the map is highly simplistic but add a thin skin on those circles for Storm Shadow. They also make the assumption that there is no air threat and that defences have been degraded. Another flaw is that it also assumes that fighters could tag along if needed which means loads of tanker support anyway but try the same thing from a carrier or CAS mission from an air head in theatre for an extra twist.

Remember, these are unrefuelled distances.

Long range or higher endurance adds many deployment possibilities.

If an aircraft that first few in 1958 can fly just under 2,000 miles with a 4 to 5 tonne payload surely an aircraft design that benefits from 50 years of engine and airframe advances can push that out by a third, is that such an ambitious target?

Maintainabilty and Deployability; near the top of the list should be simplicity of maintenance, designed in from the start. Spares packs, wherever possible, should be designed to fit in standard ISO containers and major systems changes should be designed to be rapid and possible without huge infrastructure support. With its long range it would be able to self deploy to most locations but a crucial capability would be the ability to operate from CVF so this means sturdy undercarriage, folding wings and other features. These features also provide benefits in land basing and although 99% of the time it would operate from an established air head, semi austere basing might provide extra flexibility.

Spares packs, consumables, tools, manuals, diagnostics and other ancillary equipment might also be carried in the bomb bay in specially designed containers for self deployment.

Engines; having paid for marinisation development of the Rolls Royce BR710, the engine fitted to the Nimrod MRA4 and Sentinel, it would seem an ideal candidate. Because the engine has its roots in the long range business jet market the BR710 has comparatively good fuel consumption and low operating costs.

The Buccaneer had a pair of Speys that each developed 11,000 pound thrust so the BR710 at 15,000 pounds combined with the judicious use of composites and modern alloys should hopefully see the payload and range targets met. Whether that engine would be suitable is another matter but it is the obvious choice.


In the CAS role, this aircraft could carry out a single ‘on call’ mission of 3 to 4 hours without refuelling, have the speed the speed to react to troops in contact in a reasonable time and carry enough payload to provide a range of munitions to the forward air controller that suit the requirement.

In the strike role, in permissive or semi permissive air environment, operating at a medium altitude it should also be able to either operate at significant range against pre planned targets or at a shorter range/with AAR, against targets of opportunity.

The ultra demanding roles of early theatre entry, destruction of enemy air defences (without standoff cruise missiles) and air dominance would still be carried out by the racing thoroughbreds of course.

The viability of this hair brain scheme would of course, be cost driven.

The question pivots an answering this question…

Would the cost of introducing and operating such an aircraft be greater or less than chewing through precious airframe hours using Typhoon, Tornado and F35 for destroying targets that effectively have no defence i.e. the majority of missions we are/will be using them for.

Whilst we are all snorting at the cost, have a think on the number of aircraft, air crew, ground crew, support contracts, spares and tanker support (with its associated support and personnel cost) , currently supporting the pointy fast jet force that one of these would displace.

Then factor into that the likely costs of a future UCAV.

Now I know we are not comparing drills and screwdrivers, but what if all we actually need are screwdrivers?

I don’t have the answer and to be honest, wrote this with my tongue firmly in cheek, but it’s an interesting thought exercise and as for ruthless commonality, surely one is allowed to change one’s mind!

PS, did anyone notice the ISO container reference J

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