What's fueling the desire for change? Well, the high cost of jet fuel of course. The Air Force spent tens of billions of dollars on fuel last year, and every time a barrel of oil goes up $10, AF fuel costs rise over $600 million. In addition to pushing for more UAVs and new synthetic fuels, lately, more than ever, they've considered how to do the job without flying as many hours.
Most studies show 20 - 30% fuel savings are possible, and that equates to a huge amount of money DOD could put towards other critical requirements. The DSB report says BWB:
... offers the possibility of 2x gains in range and payload, and of 5-10x in system level fuel efficiency. If the technology can be successfully applied to both tankers and bombers, the potential exists for far fewer sorties needed to accomplish a given mission. The enhanced range of both bombers and tankers would offer the possibility of far fewer aircraft devoted to a single mission, freeing aircraft to conduct other missions or to focus more firepower on a given target.So clearly, it's about fuel and money savings, but the range improvements have substantial mission implications as well. For a sampling of material on this topic, here are a few additional links:
this link from a fact-checking site confirms that there is a large amount of work left to be done before these planes are ready for prime time. Consensus seems to be 2015 or 2020, so although I wish it were otherwise, that likely means 2025.
X-48 Photo courtesy of Boeing, Inc.