Uncertainty Surrounds the Cost of New Bomber (UPDATED)

By Allyson Versprille

Northrop Grumman hints at new long-range strike bomber design in Super Bowl advertisement.

Questions remain about whether the Air Force will be able to meet its cost and quantity targets for the new long-range strike bomber as the service prepares to announce which industry team has been chosen to build the aircraft, analysts said.

The Air Force plans to acquire 80 to 100 bombers at an estimated cost of $550 million per plane. Research-and-development costs for the jet are projected to reach $25 billion.

During an Aug. 13 roundtable discussion hosted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C-based think tank, defense experts noted that much remains unknown about the Air

Force’s requirements for the aircraft, which is a top secret program. Black areas include range, speed, service ceiling, payload capacity, the types of ordnance it will carry, and how it will preserve stealth capabilities in the decades to come.

“There’s a logic that says invest here [and] make it the stealthiest you can make it,” said Andrew Hunter, an industry analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are other technologies that you are going to probably have to add to … the original design to keep ahead of the threat.”

Air Force officials have publicly stated some of the requirements for the new bomber: It must be stealthy, nuclear-capable, and optionally manned or unmanned.

Hunter said it is difficult to predict how much the plane will cost without knowing more information: “It depends on the design. It depends on how they make these performance trades and the requirements. … It is reasonable from an analytical perspective that they could be in this [price] range. Whether they are in this range we don’t know yet.”

T.X. Hammes, a research fellow at National Defense University, cited previous bomber acquisition efforts as reason for pessimism, especially the B-2 Spirit program.

“The B-2 was promised initially at $525 million [per plane] and eventually came in around $2 billion,” he said. “I think we can kind of expect the same pattern unless we think suddenly we’re going to break 70 years of aircraft development [trends] and the next one is going to be cheaper than the previous model.”

The Air Force originally planned to buy 132 B-2s but only ended up buying 21 because of cost overruns (one of them crashed in 2008, leaving 20 B-2s remaining in the fleet today). Analysts noted that the reduced buy drove up the average cost of the plane.

“To me they’re basically trying to build something at roughly the cost the B-2 would have been if they hadn’t changed the design in the middle and if they actually built the number that they were planning to build. And I don’t think that’s wildly unrealistic, especially if they skimp in certain areas,” Hunter said.

Plans to get rid of aging bombers like the B-52H Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer will make it more difficult for the Air Force to reduce the buy of the new bomber, said J.J. Gertler, a military aviation analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

“It’s a very different situation from B-2 because you’re retiring a whole bunch of aircraft. You can’t go significantly below 100 [new bombers] and hope to replace 170 [to] 175 B-52s and B-1s,” he said. “So there is a floor on the number.”

Fully funding the long-range bomber could eat into other programs, experts noted.

“This is a tradeoff,” Hammes said. “If you want 100 of these things, what are you going to give up?”

Two teams are vying to win the contract award — with Lockheed Martin and Boeing on one side, and Northrop Grumman on the other. The Defense Department is expected to announce the winner as early as September.

Analysts at the roundtable predicted that both teams would come in with bids below the Air Force’s price target in order to land the contract.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of B-2 bombers the Air Force originally intended to buy.

Clarification: Clarified the number of B-2s purchased by the Air Force in paragraph nine. A previous version of the story stated that only 20 were bought. However, 21 were originally purchased. That number changed in 2008 when one crashed. 

Topics: Aviation

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