The last time the U.S. Air Force developed a stealth bomber, the planes cost $2.2 billion each and couldn’t sit out in the rain.
The B-2 bomber, whose sensitive coating helps make it hard to detect on enemy radar, must be sheltered from the elements in climate-controlled hangars at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. None of the 20 planes is based overseas, where it could respond faster in a crisis.
Now, with little public scrutiny or debate, the Air Force is developing a next-generation bomber that it promises to build with advanced technology at a fraction of the B-2’s cost. Few outside the Pentagon take the advertised sticker price of $550 million per plane, or $55 billion for a planned fleet of 100, at face value.
“There’ll be a tendency to load this thing with every toy that can be developed because it’s the only game in town,” said Tom Christie, who watched the B-2’s costs increase in the 1980’s as a Pentagon acquisition executive and later served as director of operational testing for all weapons until he retired in 2005. “It’s worse now than it ever was.”
As the Air Force prepares to award a contract within months to build the new bomber, there’s also debate about whether it’s even needed in an era of unmanned aircraft and unconventional warfare against irregular forces.
The plane, which may not be ready for combat until the 2030s, may already be outmoded in an era of relatively inexpensive cruise missiles and drones that can be built with 3-D printers, said T.X. Hammes, a research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University.
‘Easy to Defeat’
“We’re investing in the old battleship instead of the small-smart-and-many aviation revolution,” Hammes said in an interview. “We’re going to build this incredibly expensive system that’s pretty easy to defeat” as advanced satellite technology helps adversaries unmask stealth aircraft.
Air Force officials bristle at criticism that they say isn’t deserved for a program that’s barely begun.
“There’s already the usual suspects out there telling us that we don’t need this or it won’t work,” Major General Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said at an Air Force Association breakfast in January. The new bomber “will be affordable and it’s desperately needed,” he said.
Pentagon officials say the new Long-Range Strike Bomber will be needed to replace existing bombers as they age.
Gordon Adams, a professor at American University in Washington who was a national security budget official in the Clinton administration, said “old doesn’t matter” because “you fly bombers sparingly,” and the B-2 and other bombers continue to be upgraded.
The B-2, which first flew in 1989, can carry nuclear weapons as part of the land-sea-air triad that’s intended to deter nuclear-armed countries such as Russia, China and North Korea.
Also, only the B-2 can carry the heaviest U.S. conventional bomb, the 30,000-pound (13,600-kilogram) Massive Ordnance Penetrator, which would be used if the U.S. sought to destroy hardened targets such as Iran’s nuclear facilities.
While the B-2 has played a limited role in combat, it was used in the 1999 air offensive over Kosovo and has flown missions over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The Air Force built special shelters on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam when the planes were deployed.
Defense officials say their latest of repeated efforts at acquisition reform will be effective, protecting taxpayers from the vast cost overruns on the B-2 and Lockheed Martin Corp.’s current work on the F-35 fighter, the costliest U.S. weapons system at $391.1 billion for a fleet of 2,443 planes.
The contest to build the new bomber pits Northrop Grumman Corp., which has an incumbent’s advantage as the builder of the B-2, against a joint bid by Lockheed and Boeing Co., which bring the expertise and clout of the biggest and second-biggest U.S. government contractors.
Winning the competition is critical for Northrop, which doesn’t have a prime contract on a defense aerospace program to rival Lockheed’s F-35 fighter or Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus tanker, said Douglas Rothacker, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. Without it, Northrop would have to rely more heavily on its unmanned systems and radar businesses, he said.
“If Northrop doesn’t win this contract, where does that leave them in the combat aircraft production landscape?” Rothacker said. “They would be pretty much out of the game.”
Citing the bomber’s classified status, chief executive officers from all three contractors have stuck mostly to vague public expressions of optimism about their prospects and their capabilities.
Super Bowl Ad
Northrop has been most open about its ambitions, producing a television commercial with the outline of a futuristic aircraft under a shroud. It ran the spot during the Super Bowl in February in just two cities where it would be seen by decision makers — Washington and Dayton, Ohio, where Air Force acquisition officials are based. It also bought an ad on Google that placed a link to the commercial as the top result in searches for “Long-Range Strike Bomber.”
Betraying the high stakes, Jim McNerney, Boeing’s chairman and CEO, said on a Jan. 28 conference call that winning the bomber “will solidify the future of St. Louis for many, many years to come,” as orders for the F-15 and F/A-18 fighter jets made at its plant there dwindle.
“This is the closest I’ve seen to a horse race in years,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group and a longtime observer of the aircraft industry. “Normally, you’d have a feel for somebody having an edge, but I just can’t read this one.”
The bomber project is so secret that the Defense Department won’t discuss the development work that’s already under way or say who’s doing it. Whatever contractor has done the bulk of this preliminary work “is likely to have an advantage in the production contract,” aviation analyst Jeremiah Gertler of the Congressional Research Service wrote in an analysis published in July.
The Air Force already has committed to spend $15.1 billion through 2020 to develop the new bomber, not including work from classified budgets. Funding is increasing from about $349 million in 2014 to $1.2 billion next year, according to the latest Air Force budget plan, and is projected to climb steadily each year to $3.79 billion in 2020.
Adding in development costs and inflation in coming years, the bomber’s price tag may jump by almost two-thirds, to about $900 million per plane by the mid-2030s, according to Todd Harrison, a military budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
The Air Force’s $550 million cost estimate is based on 2010 dollars and assumes buying all 100 planes. The fewer it acquires, the higher the unit cost, just as the B-2’s price per plane soared as a projected fleet of 132 bombers was reduced to 75 and then to 20 after the Cold War ended. Similarly, the Air Force bought 100 of its predecessor, the B-1 bomber, instead of the 244 it had planned.
Hammes, who said it’s a “wild fantasy” that the Air Force will ever build 100 of the new bombers, predicted that the cost per plane may rise to $3 billion, exceeding that of the B-2.
Air Force Major General Paul Johnson, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, said the new aircraft will have advanced technologies to remain undetectable, even as the B-2 becomes more vulnerable to air defenses.
“Our adversaries recognize the advantage that stealth brings,” Johnson said. “We’re working hard to maintain that advantage, and we’re being successful at that.”
The other bombers in the U.S. arsenal — the B-52 and the supersonic B-1 — have no stealth characteristics and can’t fly in hostile environments where the enemy has modern air defenses.
A new bomber that can penetrate enemy airspace is achievable and needed, said Mark Gunzinger, a former Air Force executive now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“Stealth as a concept will never be obsolete,” Gunzinger said. “We need our bombers to be survivable.”
Depending only on stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles to strike targets isn’t adequate, said Rebecca Grant, who worked on the B-2 for the Air Force in the 1990s and is now president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington. “Cruise missiles are too small for many types of jobs,” she said.
Yet the secretive nature of the program has prevented any public discussion of how much more a new bomber could do, its cost compared with the B-2, and why it’s worth the investment of tens of billions of dollars.
“The Air Force has said flat-out nothing about this,” Grant said of the bomber program. “I think they’re making a big mistake.”
Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a longtime critic of runaway spending on weapons systems, said he needs to hear more about the new bomber.
“The Air Force has got to make the case, even if we have to have classified hearings,” the Arizona Republican said in an interview on Tuesday. “I’m not sold on it yet, but I’m not rejecting it. I want them to make their case.”