It is a program shrouded in secrecy.
Air Force officials over the past few years have been happy to talk publicly about how much they need a new long-range strike bomber, but have given it a “secret” classification and share few other details.
But after a half-decade of discussions about what the aircraft should be in unclassified settings, 2014 has seen some revelations and movement in the program.
A request for proposals was released in July and two competitors are expected to respond, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team and Northrop Grumman.
Gen. Michael Hostage, commander of the Air Force air combat command, after the RFP was released, reiterated what has been said before.
The Air Force needs an aircraft by the mid-2020s that can reach deep inside enemy territory and deliver a lethal payload, he said at an Air Force Association speech in Arlington, Virginia.
In his mind, the Air Force has bomber shortcomings now.
The B-52 and B-1 bombers do not have the ability to penetrate robust air defenses. The B-2 does, but its payload is limited, and there are only 21 of them.
“We have 21 B-2s, an aging fleet of B-52s and a rapidly aging fleet of B-1s,” he said. Adversaries have to know that they have no “sanctuary,” he said.
Those three aging aircraft have prompted the Air Force to name the long-range strike bomber as one of its three top acquisition priorities along with the KC-46 tanker and the F-35.
Analysts interviewed in 2013 about the bomber’s funding prospects struck a cautious note, saying funding delays could hamper the program. The outlook is much better and clearer this year, they said.
“The Air Force has made the hard tradeoffs internally to keep it fully funded. And I expect it will continue to do that,” said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The new bomber is “on track and pretty solid as a program,” he said.
The Air Force, however, has submitted budgets that exceed the levels of the Budget Control Act. “If they do that again this year, the Air Force will have to pare back its planned spending for fiscal year ’16,” he added. But he has heard that the Air Force has developed a balanced budget through 2023 that fully complies with the BCA.
“While there is some concern that sequester can impact funding for the program, it’s much less than some may think. I just don’t see a major challenge to the program,” Gunzinger said.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at The Teal Group, said, “I think it is one of the more secure programs out there.”
Another revelation this year came from a July 2 Congressional Research Service report, which was posted first on the Federation of American Scientists website. Jeremiah Gertler, a specialist in military aviation, suggested in the three-page brief, “Budget Highlight: Air Force Long Range Strike Bomber,” that a good portion of the development money may have already been spent over the years in “black” budgets.
Gertler examined the budget projection numbers from 2013 to 2019 and concluded that it resembles a production program rather than a development program.
“This may indicate that significant LRS-B development has already been completed, presumably in classified budgets,” he wrote. “Such prior development would also help explain how the Air Force intends to get the system from a request for proposals to initial operational capability in about 10 years, when equally or less complicated systems like the F-22 and F-35 have taken more than 20.”
Citing the CRS report, Aboulafia said, “there is probably a lot of cash that has already been spent. … The ramp has remained pretty consistent. They are proceeding at full speed.”
Gunzinger said the acquisition strategy for the Air Force should be to buy capability over time. The first bomber off the line might not “do everything,” but functionalities can be added later on to make it more affordable and to not take such a bite out of the defense budget in the early years.
That includes a modular design.
“For a system that has a 30 to 40 year life, it is vital,” Gunzinger said. The nation can’t afford to build a new bomber or fighter every 15 to 20 years, he added.
The Air Force is sticking to its $550 million per aircraft price tag. Gunzinger said CSBA analyzed this number and found it to be realistic. Air Force officials have also stated publicly that they wanted already developed technologies for the aircraft, Gunzinger noted. That could keep the price down.
But “we can’t do what we did with the B-2 and prematurely truncate the buy at 21 aircraft,” Gunzinger said.
The plan to procure 132 B-2s fell well short of its goal 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.
Once you lose that economy of scale and development costs are factored in, the price per aircraft skyrockets, he noted.
Eric Fanning, undersecretary of the Air Force, told Washington, D.C.- based reporters in March that the service was sticking to its $550 million per aircraft estimate.
“We are still using that as a pretty firm chalk line for those companies that are bidding on it,” he said. There are skeptics who believe the $550 million price is too low, and that the Air Force will not get the requirements out of the bomber that it needs, he said.
“This is keeping both the Air Force and the contractors pretty disciplined about what they put into the bomber,” he said.
The price of $550 million per aircraft figure does not factor in the development costs, he said. He didn’t know what the per-unit cost what be if the R&D was added, but it wouldn’t double it, he said.
Gunzinger said: “We need to buy them in numbers. Not only for the economy of scale, but to replace the fleets of aging bombers.”
It also depends on what kind of aircraft the Air Force is looking for, he said.
The service has consistently called the program a “family of systems.”
What that means exactly is still a closely guarded secret.
The potential bidders, who have seen the request for proposals, declined to provide comment. Boeing did not respond to a request for an interview.
Tim Paynter, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems military aircraft systems director of communications, also could not make executives available for an interview, saying only in an emailed statement that: “Northrop Grumman’s design, production and sustainment of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the bomber most recently produced for the U.S. Air Force, positions the company well for the LRS-B program. We are very interested in working with the Air Force to provide this critical capability for the nation.”
A “family of systems” could mean several things, Aboulafia said.
Hostage in his July speech said: “We are not going to build a platform that has everything on it … it will be part of a family of capabilities and it will shape the members of that family to produce what it needs to produce.”
Gunzinger said this might include subsystems such as jammers, standoff weapons and decoys to improve survivability.
Aboulafia said there are three possibilities: it could mean both manned and unmanned versions, a concept that has been bandied about for some time. It could mean different types of aircraft and systems working together to deliver a payload — missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and bombers. Or it could be different sized aircraft scaled up or down to suit the mission needs.
Gunzinger said: “This is the way the DoD is now approaching future air dominance.” It is not looking at single aircraft to do a job. “They didn’t look at the bomber in isolation.”
Stand-off weapons, airborne electronic attack, sensor platforms and other penetrating systems can help aircraft survive behind enemy lines, he said.
“All this composes a system of systems for long range strike,” he said.
Another revelation this year was that the Air Force intends to begin the process of certifying the bomber for nuclear-weapons payloads shortly after it joins the force, Gunzinger pointed out.
That has dampened criticism that the Air Force wasn’t serious about maintaining the air-breathing leg of the nuclear triad, he said.
“It sounds as if the Air Force is indeed very serious about that,” he added.
The speculation is necessary because of the classified nature of the program.
Fanning said in March that he expected more transparency in the future.
“I expect, yes, that we will be revealing more details, and we will be more transparent on that program as we move forward and move further into it than we are right now,” he said.
Neither Gunzinger nor Aboulafia has seen more light being shed on the program so far.
Gunzinger said there is a good reason to keep the program in the black.
Requirements — such as the degree of stealth, the kinds of missions it will potentially perform, payload, range and other factors — shouldn’t be revealed to competitors, he said. Premature disclosures could diminish advantages.
“I’m surprised at some of the details they have revealed,” he said.
Aboulafia said as far as more transparency: “No one has seen it.”
Keeping a program “in the black” is a doubled-edged sword, he said. “On the one hand, it allows you to do all kinds of things without the hyper level of congressional scrutiny and oversight. The negative side of that is that you don’t build an industrial constituency, so it is harder to guarantee funding.”
The next milestone is the down select from two teams to one, which the analysts said is expected in the spring of 2015. - Additional reporting by Chelsea Todaro
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.