The Air Force is setting out to do something it hasn’t done in more than two decades: acquire a heavy bomber.
The aspiration is to have an operational long range strike bomber in the air by the mid-2020s.
To do so, the service will have to avoid some of the pitfalls of the past, and keep funding flowing to the program despite budget pressures, analysts said.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and its acquisition failures are fresh in the minds of lawmakers and the public. The B-2 — the last U.S. bomber built — may be less so, but a plan to procure 132 of them fell well short after Congress lost faith in the program and cut the fleet number off at 21. Its predecessor, the B-1, also was never built in the numbers envisioned.
Experts interviewed said that the Air Force and industry were capable of delivering the LRS-B, as it is also known, on budget and on time, but there are some big “ifs.”
“I have no doubt that the mid-2020s goal can be met — given sufficient funding,” said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, said he expects by the end of the Obama administration that the Air Force should be able to pick a winner and a design, which would put it on track to go into rapid development for production early next decade.
“2025 for an initial operating capability is doable as long as they keep the funding on track,” he said.
Sticker shock could derail the program, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group. That was one factor that led to the premature end of the B-2.
“It is right to see public perception as a major risk here,” he said.
He expected the program per-unit cost to far exceed $1 billion per aircraft. That factors in all the research-and-development costs and tacks them onto however many aircraft are produced. The Air Force wants a $550 million per-aircraft price tag, a figure that doesn’t add in development money.
Thompson said: “Without an urgent threat to keep the program on track, there is a danger that money will be cut in large enough amounts to delay the effort.”
As far as the public and lawmakers, “They don’t claim to understand stealth. They don’t claim to understand the mission. But almost everybody in Washington claims to understand a price tag,” Thompson said.
An additional problem, Aboulafia said, is that research-and-development programs are fat targets for budget cutters.
“The temptation is there because people want to transition to something that has an industry footprint to get support. You want to generate buy-in from industry, politicians, unions and services, and it is tough to do that if you are R&D only,” he said.
Research-and-development funding is beginning to flow, although much of the program remains classified.
Gunzinger said in policy circles, the need for a stealthy, long-range bomber is fairly well established. Air Force officials have consistently said it is one of the service’s top acquisition priorities.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — as he laid out the department’s budget priorities after the completion of a strategic choices and management review — said weapon systems that can penetrate highly protected nations would be spared cuts.
“We would protect investments to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, such as the long range strike family of systems, submarine cruise-missile upgrades and the Joint Strike Fighter,” he said. This would occur even if the Budget Control Act and its deep cuts continue until 2021.
Both Gunzinger and Thompson have written papers laying out the need for a long-range strike capability.
Potential enemies such as China are making a concerted effort to strengthen their anti-access capabilities. It is believed that by the 2020s, they will be able to defeat low-observable aircraft such as the B-2.
“The bottom line on any late delivery of this bomber is that there will be some things we can’t do that are important,” Thompson said.
“The B-2 bomber will have problems getting to China’s interior a dozen years from now, so you have got to get a new bomber, otherwise you start to give your enemies sanctuary you can’t reach,” he said.
The new strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region will require aircraft that can fly long distances, Gunzinger said.
“There is a general understanding that our current combat air forces have pretty much been optimized for the kinds of war-fighting scenarios we have engaged in over the past 20 years and we need to increase the mix to include more long-range capabilities,” he said.
These scenarios include battle zones where the Air Force encountered antiquated or no air defenses.
To field a new aircraft by the mid-2020s, the Air Force is going to have to shake its dismal record of not delivering major acquisition programs on time and on budget.
So far, the service has been saying all the right things, the analysts said. One stated goal is to leverage as many proven technologies as possible.
Tradeoffs will have to be made when it comes to using some of these older technologies as opposed to giving into the temptation to develop the most cutting edge, but riskier ones.
“Do you want something that changes the balance of power, or do want something that gets the job done in terms of power projection?” Aboulafia asked.
Some components, such as landing gear, may come from the 1990s era B-2, Gunzinger said.
There are also “off-the-shelf” parts such as engines and radars that will move the program away from “invention” and into “engineering,” he said.
And the more recent F-35, although it is a fighter and not a bomber, will have some important technologies to contribute, said Gunzinger.
“There is no question that the avionics in the F-35 are world class, or cutting edge — pick your term,” he said.
Low-observable, or stealth, technologies could also be derived from the F-35, Thompson said.
“The F-35 is the most advanced, stealthy aircraft in the world at this point. The Air Force doesn’t want to pay to reinvent the wheel, so it will adapt that technology for the new bomber,” he said.
One thing from the F-35 program that Thompson and Gunzinger agreed won’t be making it to the new bomber program is its acquisition strategy. “Concurrency,” as it is known, called for the Air Force to simultaneously acquire and develop the F-35. Frank Kendall, undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, recently called that “acquisition malpractice.”
“That is something I have no doubt the DoD never wants to repeat again,” Gunzinger said.
The Air Force should let the design mature and allow the testing to uncover problems that might need to be reworked, which would reduce the cost of the program and the time needed to field the system, he said.
Aboulafia said: “Take your time” is the most important lesson learned from the F-35 program. “Don’t embrace concurrency because you think that technology has solved the problem,” he said.
Nevertheless, the temptation to rush the job is still there because “people want to transition to something that has an industry footprint to get support,” he said. New start programs are always at risk because they can be a decade away from producing hardware and the jobs that go with it.
“A lot about this program is modular. It won’t be the full-throttle, straight-on development that we saw in Joint Strike Fighter. It is something you can do in bits and pieces,” Aboulafia said.
There will be the usual tension between using tested, low-risk components and the desire for new technologies and capabilities, he said.
Rebecca Grant in a 2012 report written for the Lexington Institute, “The Case for a New Stealth Bomber,” recommended organizing a steering group comprising Air Force, office of the secretary of defense officials and industry representatives that would prioritize requirements and look at design trades.
“Almost certainly, the new stealth bomber program will face unforeseen systems engineering challenges and should be able to call on a trusted team of experts to guide those choices without rancor or data disputes,” she wrote.
Thompson said one of the most important things the Air Force has done to embed requirements discipline into the program is declaring that the aircraft will cost no more than $550 million per copy.
Spiraling per-aircraft costs was a factor that sunk the B-1 and B-2 programs.
A lot of what drove the cost of the B-2 is that it had a specialized mission tracking down mobile Soviet nuclear weapons in the middle of a war. “The problem with an extreme mission like that is that it sort of drives the cost of everything else,” Thompson said.
The LRS-B is envisioned as carrying out other missions.
“What the Air Force wants in a long range strike bomber is a plane that can do almost anything at long range without breaking the bank,” he said.
“When you’ve got a lot of operational requirements, it is smart to start by saying it can’t cost more than $550 million. People will say, ‘You shouldn’t let the price tag guide the design,’ but if you don’t do that, then you will end up with a $2 billion plane.”
The $550 million figure may still sound like a lot, but it really isn’t when considering that Boeing builds the 787 Dreamliner for $300 million. A limited production run military aircraft at less than twice that price, is not a bad deal, he added.Photo Credit: Air Force