Politics & Policy

Will the Next Air Force Bomber Be an Underperforming, Over-Budget Mess?

Northrop Grumman’s B-3 concept (via Breaking Defense)

Last month the Air Force announced it had received the final competing design submissions from Northrop Grumman and Boeing/Lockheed Martin for the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), also known as the B-3. The Air Force will be reviewing the two submissions and in a few months will announce who has won the contract for its first new bomber in 25 years. At the low end, the contract will be worth some $55 billion. But factoring in development costs and the cost-growth patterns of the last 20 years for these types of projects, the value of the contract easily ends up exceeding $100 billion. According to USAF general Mark Welsh, 80–100 of the bombers are planned to be operational by the mid 2020s, and the design will be based on “mature technology.” More-accurate independent analysis, such as that performed by the Congressional Research Service, estimates the bomber will reach initial operational capability (IOC) sometime around 2030.  

Assertions that the B-3 will be built using “mature technology” (technology that has been proven to work in its final form under expected conditions) must be looked at in the context of a $24 billion dollar development budget and a timeline that could easily stretch out to 20 years before the bomber achieves full operational capability (FOC). What General Welsh is actually saying is that many billions of dollars will be spent over a decade or more to bring currently immature technologies to maturity. In short, very smart people will attempt to look into the future and come up with capabilities for the new design that will befuddle whatever military rivals we will be facing 20 years from now.

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Indeed the B-3 is not merely going to be a bomber; there is talk of fitting it with sophisticated battle-management capabilities that will enable it to be the hub of a “self-healing combat cloud.” There is even been talk of arming it with air-to-air missiles so it can defend itself, unlike our current bombers. Exactly what features and functionality will be included in the plane is classified, but that there will be many is certain. But while “revolutionary” capabilities are a great selling point to Congress, incorporating these unproven, speculative technologies into the base design leads to busted schedules, busted budgets, and weapon systems that are less reliable and far more costly to maintain. This is exactly the kind of risk-filled process and mindset that gave us weapon systems such as the B-2 Bomber and the F-35, both of which have failed to meet their promised performance metrics even as costs exploded and schedules slipped. A DARPA-supported paper by former secretary of defense Richard Danzig makes the case that the vast majority of our resources should be expended to meet current threats because acquisitions that rely on forecasting the future are far more likely to fail. Perhaps most important, the B-3’s long development cycle ensures our military competitors have plenty of time to co-opt and counter whatever new capabilities come out of the program.

Concerned citizens have every right to be skeptical of the project’s cost, as over the past 30 years the Air Force has achieved a nearly perfect record of awarding contracts for combat aircraft that end up failing to meet both cost and performance goals. Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 until his retirement in 2005, says that while a cost of $550 million per bomber is the current target, “you’re talking $2 billion by the time they build the damn thing. . . . How many times [have] we been through this with bombers? And look where we end up.” This would be scarily reminiscent of the disastrously expensive B-2 program, which was initially estimated to cost $76.5 billion (2015 dollars) to design and build 132 B-2s — about $579 million each. In the end, cost overruns led to the B-2 program being curtailed at 21 outrageously high-maintenance planes at a cost of $2.2 billion dollars each, bringing the total program cost to $44 billion and counting.

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Not everyone is quite as pessimistic as Christie, with other independent estimates coming in at $900 million to just over $1 billion per bomber. But the bottom line is that no real case can be made that the projected $550 million per-plane price tag ($600 million in 2015 dollars) is at all realistic. Further, as has increasingly been the case with major weapons programs, it is likely that the Air Force spokespeople defending the integrity of the B-3 cost estimates will have left (most likely for senior positions in the defense industry) long before FOC is reached. No one will be held accountable when the program goes off the rails.

The inability to risk assets and absorb losses is a huge disadvantage on the battlefield as it inevitably takes the most militarily efficacious options off the table.

Regardless of the exact unit cost, it will be a tremendously expensive plane. And it is going to be built in small numbers compared with the thousands of heavy bombers our nation was able to field in the 1950s and the ’60s as the first leg of the United States’ nuclear triad. Even if we have built the full 100 B-3s by 30 years from now, will they be able to penetrate peer competitor airspace and take out high-value targets with a high probability of making it back safely? If they can’t, the Air Force will be extremely reluctant to put these billion-dollar assets at risk, and will only use them when the risk is judged to be suitably low. This is a serious issue, one we have seen with the F-22 (barely used despite achieving FOC in 2007) and the B-2. Neither has had to face peer competitors in a shooting war, but have instead been used in relatively low-risk missions against third-rate military powers with no ability to challenge our air superiority. The inability to risk assets and absorb losses is a huge disadvantage on the battlefield as it inevitably takes the most militarily efficacious options off the table — options that could make the difference between winning and losing against a serious military rival.

At a time when the technology gap between the U.S. and its traditional competitors is fast closing, a program that so depends on maintaining huge technology advantages over our peer competitors far into the future should be viewed as shaky at best. In a recent article, the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano writes:

Basing a strategy on technological innovation that is not in hand is nothing more than wishful thinking. It would be like Taft’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, planning to fight World War I with nuclear weapons. Game-changing technology happens when it happens — not on-demand, like cable. Indeed, betting on technology that’s not mature often leads to deploying technology before it’s ready, which in turn leads to the kinds of massive cost overruns and delays a cash-strapped Defense Department can ill afford.

#share#Because of globalization, the technology gap the United States once enjoyed is getting very narrow and in some areas has virtually disappeared. Consequently, the so-called third-offset strategy proposed by former secretary of defense Chuck Hegel will only accelerate the downward trend in U.S. military strength. Taking 30 years to field 80–100 super-high-tech bombers on the assumption that we can regain the same position of technological supremacy that we held in the early 1990s is beyond risky and makes no sense in a world where technology diffusion is a fact.

Instead of adhering to the fiction that we can engineer revolutionary technologies on a schedule, we should actually start building ships and planes using the vast storehouse of engineering know-how we have on tap right now.

What does make sense is to recognize that in spite of sequestration woes, we still have the largest military budget in the world by a large margin. Instead of adhering to the fiction that we can engineer revolutionary technologies on a schedule, we should actually start building ships and planes using the vast storehouse of engineering know-how we have on tap right now. Doing so would help regain much of the ground our military has lost over the past 20 years. When it comes to military contracting, the perfect is the enemy of the good. We can radically improve the bang for the buck we get from the B-3 program by addressing two of the primary issues responsible for our out-of-control, unreliable weapons-development and procurement programs: (1) overly long development cycles and (2) the incorporation of risky, unproven technologies into the base design. A 2008 GAO study found “at the program level, none of the [72 major] weapon programs assessed had proceeded through system development meeting the best practices standards for mature technologies, stable design, and mature production processes — all prerequisites for achieving planned cost, schedule, and performance outcomes.”

Reducing technical risk is a priority for our weapons-procurement programs. A 2014 RAND study on the subject recommended an evolutionary approach in which new technical capabilities are incrementally added to a weapon system only after the core set of mature, tested capabilities have been fielded and have successfully demonstrated full operational capability. Unfortunately, Congress has given initial approval to a project that ignores this advice.

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If a new bomber program is politically inevitable, why not try something that has not been done in decades? Design a combat aircraft using currently available technologies, and do so on a very tight schedule, while severely limiting the development budget.

The data and the technology that can be leveraged for the B-3 starting tomorrow include many thousands of hours of flight data and experience gained from flying stealthy platforms such as the B-2, F-22, the RQ-170, the F-117, the F-35, as well as modestly stealthy planes such as the SR-71 and the B-1B. It includes the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars invested into designing and building the previous bombers, fighter jets, and stealth drones, as well as the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars invested in electronic warfare and communications technologies. Not be overlooked, we have lots of data on what has gone wrong that could be put to good use by the right project leaders. Effectively utilizing this treasure trove of technology under a deadline that does not have technology immaturity as a built-in excuse for schedule and cost overruns will reduce the unit cost and the time to completion.

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As currently structured, the B-3 contract and its corresponding opportunity cost will actually diminish American air power. Congress needs to step in and help guide the Air Force back to the business of building affordable, reliable planes that meet our current needs and threats. By leveraging existing technologies, while avoiding those not ready for prime time, the B-3 has the potential to be far and away the most capable bomber built to date. This more responsible approach would give us a better chance to build enough bombers so that we could employ them even when there is a risk of losing them in battle. And with a modular design to which new, vetted technologies can incrementally be added, these new bombers would be well-positioned to receive upgrades that meet actual threats many decades into the future.

Mike Fredenburg is the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.

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