As revealed yesterday, the fiscal year 2016 defense budget request contained $1.2 billion ($ 914 million in FY 2015) for the continuous development of a new long-range strike bomber (LRS-B), details of which are scant and remain classified. Only three things appear to be cast in stone: a 2025 in-service-date, a $550-$810 million unit cost (excluding development), and an 80-to-100 aircraft fleet. The rest is speculation. Design and capabilities remain unknown save some obvious ones: the bomber is purported to have stealth capability, carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, and will, in all likelihood, be optionally manned.
The LRS-B, which is supposed to replace the current U.S. Air Force fleet of long-range heavy bombers (the B-1, B-2 and B-52), should above all else be cheap. In 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, terminated a more ambitious program, the “Next Generation Bomber” (NGB), because of the high costs associated with it. In 2011, he launched the less sophisticated and cheaper LRS-B program instead. The LSR-B is supposed to mainly be built from “existing technologies” saving the R&D costs associated with new hardware and software. Defense News states that the Air Force may be looking for “something smaller than a B-2, perhaps as small as half the size, with two engines similar in size to the F135 engines that power the F-35, so enhancement programs can also be applied to the bomber.” Two competitors will be bidding for the contract: Northrop Grumman, and a joint Boeing/Lockheed Martin team.
This bidding war will perhaps happen rather sooner than later.
As a report by the Congressional Research Services (CRS) pointed out in June 2014, the projected LRS-B budget will increase tenfold from $258.7 million in 2013 to $3.5 billion in 2019. According to CRS analysts this funding stream, “resembles a production program more than a typical development profile”, which could indicate that bomber development is already further advanced than is publicly acknowledged. The report notes that significant LRS-bomber development could already have been completed with classified budgets, and that the plane might enter production earlier than expected.
The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferations outlines the expected tasks of the new aircraft:
Provide long range strike options in contested areas against highly advanced adversary defense networks;
Evade advanced aerial defense systems, employ stealth capabilities and potentially be optionally manned;
Support various missions such as maritime strikes, interdiction, close air support, air defense penetration, nuclear deterrence, and even general intimidation.
CRS notes that it is not clear whether the LRS-B will be, “a single platform or a group of smaller systems working in concert.” Some experts have voiced skepticism that a capability gap will exist if the LRS-B ends up not being built and consider it a waste of money. Yet, outgoing Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, recently voiced his continuing support for the program: “I think the Long-Range Strike Bomber is absolutely essential for keeping our deterrent edge. We need to do it. We need to make the investments. We’ll have it in the budget. It’s something I have particularly put a priority on.”
The relative secrecy surrounding the program can yield to poor oversight and exploding costs. Other issues may also arise in the future as Bill Sweetman notes in The Daily Beast: “With the exception of the B-1B, every U.S. bomber project launched since 1946 has been shot down or truncated by adversary coalitions including, but not limited to: peaceniks, arms-controllers, missileers, reformers, fighter generals, cheap-hawks, aircraft-carrier fans and boots-on-the-ground gunny-sergeants.”
The Air Force also has a track record of fiscal irresponsibility when it comes to bomber projects (both the B-1 and B-2 programs went massively over budget). However, as Lt. Col. Jeff Schreiner argues, important lessons can still be drawn from past bomber programs. According to media reports, the Air Force will make a decision who will build the bomber by late spring/early summer 2015.