After a decades-long streak of troubled weapon acquisitions, the Air Force is looking to get off on the right foot as it seeks to buy a new intercontinental stealth bomber.
The Pentagon’s new budget proposal gives the Air Force the green light to begin designing a new bomber with a target date for starting production in the mid-2020s. The goal is to acquire up to 100 new aircraft at a cost of about $55 billion.
But skeptics already are casting doubts on the plan. They consistently point to the B-2 batwing stealth bomber as a cautionary tale. The Pentagon spent hundreds of billions of dollars on that program only to end up with 21 aircraft, each with a $2 billion price tag. That is the reason, critics contend, why the Cold War era B-52 bomber — conceived in 1946 — is still flying and is projected to stay in operation until 2040.
The Air Force has learned tough lessons from past programs and is not about to repeat the mistakes, said Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff. “We are not going to do the B-2 again. … That is not in the cards,” he said Feb. 9 following a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The downfall of the B-2, experts have said, was its cost and overstated design. Also, because the Northrop Grumman production line was shut down early in the production, the price per unit soared as the cost was spread over 21 aircraft, instead of 132, as originally planned.
Schwartz said the new bomber should be less ambitious. “We are going to make our best effort to not overdesign an airplane,” he said. “We are not intent on delivering a capability that is extravagant.” Also, it has to be “sufficiently affordable so we can do it in numbers.”
Aviation expert Rebecca L. Grant said blue-suit leaders are being cautious about not setting up the program for failure by making the design too complex. They are also being more aware of cost implications, she said.
“We ought to be looking at 200 aircraft or more,” not just 100, Grant said Feb. 8 at a news conference where she unveiled a white paper titled, “The Case for a New Stealth Bomber,” the first in a series by the Washington Security Forum.
Grant said Air Force officials have been debating “requirements” for the new bomber for at least five years, and that they should now open up the discussion to include industry. Major Pentagon contractors such as The Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman are expected to propose designs.
A new bomber could start out with a bare-bones design and then be upgraded over time, Grant said. “They need to strive for a platform that is good for the next 40 years,” he said. “I would like to see laser weapons should they become viable.” Unlike older bombers that flew in isolation, she noted, this one will have to be able to plug and play in the vast network of military weapons systems.
Retired Air Force Gen. John Corley, a former head of Air Combat Command, said that avoiding the B-2 fiasco means doing away with old procurement habits. The Air Force in the past has been guilty of planning new weapon systems without first considering cost or schedule. That has to change, Corley said. “There has to be a dialogue between the ‘requirers,’ the ‘acquirers’ and the ‘financiers.’” If the bomber research and development phase is not managed carefully, he said, the “program will be at risk.”
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former deputy chief of staff of the Air Force, said the key to the success of the new bomber will be building it in large numbers. He does not believe that the B-2 was doomed because it was overly complex. The Pentagon had make a huge upfront investment and then let it go to waste by terminating the production so early, he said. Deptula suggested that current and future leaders take the long view and not let short-sighted thinking prevail. “We need to make the investment and then recoup that investment by producing sufficient number of aircraft,” he insisted. “Numbers are very important.” He estimated that the Air Force will need at least 180 bombers to equip its units and to keep enough in reserve for training or to replace damaged aircraft.
Some analysts remain unconvinced, however, that the Air Force has wised up after past misadventures. “There is a risk with every acquisition program that we repeat the mistakes that supposedly we should have learned from the past,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
He cautioned that the Air Force should take note of what happened with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was rushed to production before the testing was finished. Such “concurrency” ought to be avoided at all costs, even if it takes longer to field the new bomber, he said. “Concurrency hurts you politically,” Harrison said. “You have to go to Congress for money when you’re running into test failures.” Another word of advice from Harrison: “Relax requirements if you want to keep the cost down.” NASA tried the “faster, better, cheaper” approach and it backfired, he said. In these times of budget cutbacks, “cost has to be number one. So you have to be able to sacrifice schedule and performance,” he said. These are common-sense principles that everyone knows, but “we never seem to do it.”