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National Defense > Blog > Posts > After Bomber Award, Experts Raise Red Flags
After Bomber Award, Experts Raise Red Flags
By Sandra I. Erwin



In the context of major U.S. military acquisitions, the Air Force long-range strike bomber may eventually emerge as a poster child for how to buy complex big-ticket weapons. Since the program got under way in 2011, it was deliberately set up to avoid the pitfalls that have tripped up the F-35 joint strike fighter and other troubled acquisitions.

The bid selection process that culminated in the Oct. 27 bomber development and production award to Northrop Grumman also was carefully crafted to ensure the Pentagon prevails if the losing bidder — a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team — challenges the decision in court.

A laser-like focus on containing cost and setting realistic technology targets should help keep the new stealth bomber in Congress’ good graces and out of the news. But some advocates are warning that Air Force leaders are spending far more time dwelling on the process of buying a new bomber than on stressing its importance or why the bomber is needed.

“One of the lessons not talked about much that this decision process illustrates is that the decision took way too long to make,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies.

“As we move into an ever-accelerating future, the Department of Defense has to learn how to make decisions quicker, and reverse the trend of adding expense and time by paying so much attention to ‘process' as opposed to ‘product,’” he said in a statement to National Defense. “Much of the delay is driven by exquisite attention to excessive procurement rules and regulations in what is apparently greater concern with avoiding litigation than moving on with development of a critically needed capability.”

Shortly before the contract award was announced, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated that the bomber “represents the type of technological leap that we must continue to pursue in order to retain our edge.”

It took four years for the Air Force to settle on the requirements, which is not an unusual timeline for a projected $100 billion program — including development and production in inflation-adjusted prices — to acquire 100 stealth bombers. “The path to this announcement began in 2011 when, as undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, I led a collaborative team from across the services which looked at the future of our long-range strike capabilities,” Carter said. “We determined that a new and innovative design for a long-range strike bomber, accompanied with investments in intelligence surveillance, electronic warfare and advanced weapons was the best choice for our strategic requirements.” The Pentagon is fully behind the program, he added, “based on the agility reusability, affordability and deterrence that such an aircraft can provide if properly designed and procured.”

The new bomber is expected to be ready for combat operations by 2025. Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command said: “We very much need the long-range strike bomber as the anti-access aerial denial threat continues to increase.”

Despite such statements, Deptula harbors doubts that there is enough of a sense of urgency to produce and deploy new bombers sooner, rather than later. “I trust the Air Force's decision that Northrop had the best proposal. Now, let’s get on with it,” he said. “With 87 percent of the country’s bomber inventory fielded before modern stealth technology, the country is exceedingly reliant upon just a handful of B-2s to reach the world’s hardest targets.” From a defense strategy standpoint, he added, “failing to modernize will see security options fall off the table. It is for this reason that I am a staunch supporter of the Air Force’s LRS-B recapitalization program. This is not just about the Air Force, it truly cuts to securing America’s strategic imperatives around the globe.”

Analysts also caution Air Force leaders to not set unrealistic expectations by being so emphatic about the “affordability” of the bomber.
Current cost projections are $21.4 billion for the engineering and manufacturing development phase and $51.1 billion for procurement of 100 aircraft in 2010 dollars. When the effects of inflation and other costs are included — such as the roughly $2 billion in development costs already incurred — the total program cost will likely be more than $100 billion in then-year dollars, wrote defense and budget analysts Todd Harrison and Andrew Hunter, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“With a total then-year cost roughly double what some have been reporting, there could be sticker shock in Congress,” they noted. “Greater transparency in the cost estimate will help set expectations appropriately. Any cost overruns could quickly erode support for the program, especially since the Air Force has made affordability a key selling point for the LRS-B.”

Further, the Air Force should avoid pinning its cost reduction hopes to high production rates, Harrison warned. Increased production rates generally lower costs through economies of scale, but by the same token, when production rates end up lower than expected, unit costs increase, he noted. “Some past acquisition programs have artificially lowered estimated unit costs by projecting unrealistic production rates.”

With other big-ticket Air Force programs projected to compete for funding in the 2020s, Harrison said, it should not be assumed that the Air Force will be able to support high production rates for the LRS-B. “The Air Force should avoid planning high funding rates for LRS-B that are unlikely to materialize, he cautioned. “Barring a successful protest that forces a do over, the LRS-B competition is done, but the long and potentially perilous development phase of the acquisition process is just beginning. Many things can — and often do — go wrong in defense acquisitions.”

Defense analyst Gordon Adams, a former White House budget official, points out that no previous bomber has ever been produced on budget and on time, and this one will likely be no different.  “The bomber seems pretty far down the road and we seem to believe, like Charlie Brown, that the cost football will not be pulled away at the last minute and go higher,” he said. “But the new budget deal loads the Defense Department up with a lot of additional funding, which is likely to protect today’s bomber investment.”

Arms control experts also question the fiscal rationale for a new nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber at a time when the Pentagon is looking to spend at least $348 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade. “The new strategic bomber will compete with other high priority Air Force and Pentagon nuclear and conventional priorities,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association. "The Pentagon has failed to provide a compelling reason why it needs both a new penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the nuclear deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies.”

Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

Comments

Re: After Bomber Award, Experts Raise Red Flags

The Pentagon will drag feet on LRS-B so to not endanger the JSF $1.4T program regarding long-range strike. Sure, the F-35 only carries two bombs a short distance, and is no good at A2A and CAS, but the fix is in with manufacturing in 40 states.
Don Bacon at 11/4/2015 10:45 AM

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