How will the Air Force pay for Northrup Grumman’s Long Range Strike Bomber? A recent article from Lara Seligman delved into the debate over paying for the bomber, which will eat up an enormous chunk of the USAF’s procurement funds, even if it remains on budget. Seligman suggests that the Air Force may seek to set aside funding for the bomber, outside the normal USAF procurement budget, just as the Navy has sought for the SSBN-X replacement boomer.
The problem goes to the core of how the United States procures weapons. The LRS-B (we all pray for the day we can simply write “B-3”) fulfills joint requirements, but will operate within the United States Air Force. While reforms such as Goldwater-Nichols have improved “jointness” by creating connections between the services, and emphasizing the combatant commands, budgeting has remained tied to service priorities.
And so we have an aircraft that the Air Force believes will play a central role in the joint projection of American power for the rest of the century, but that must come out of the Air Force budget. The Navy, for its part, continues to jealously defend its own procurement priorities, including the CVN-78 aircraft carriers that remain the centerpieces of the future fleet. The potential conflict is particularly relevant to the U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific, which requires close collaboration between the Air Force’s long range strike assets and the Navy’s surface and subsurface assets in order to crack China’s robust A2/AD system.
Congress may create and fund set asides for both the SSBN-X and the LRS-B. If it doesn’t, we could see the first serious, public inter-service fight over procurement in several decades. This would hardly be the first inter-service fight stemming from conflict between long range strike and carrier aviation.
In the late 1940s, the U.S. Navy fought a vicious battle against the nascent U.S. Air Force, with the latter favoring the B-36 “Peacemaker” strategic bomber and the former arguing for the supercarrier USS United States. The Revolt of the Admirals eventually resulted in the firing of several senior officers in the U.S. Navy, and the cancellation of the USS United States. However, the fight also brought to fore a tremendous amount of information about both programs.
More than a decade later, a similar fight would ensue in the United Kingdom. The Royal Navy sought to build the CVA-01 large carrier to replace its existing designs. The Royal Air Force countered with the F-111B long-range strike bomber. Eventually, the United Kingdom would buy neither, settling for smaller carriers and for multirole fighter-bombers.
Of course, there are upsides to inter-service fights over funding. As noted, the Revolt of the Admirals brought a great deal of attention to the shortcomings of the B-36 Peacemaker, even it failed to cancel the lumbering dinosaur of an aircraft. Most procurement disputes in the United States have, over the past fifty years, happened beneath the surface, as the services have come to accommodations with one another, rather than allowing civilians to settle the fight.
But given that most projections for U.S. conflict with China suggest that carriers, long-range strike bombers, and other assets will play complimentary roles in a war, it’s particularly critical that the U.S. military sort through these issues at an early stage. In the long term, rethinking how the procurement system treats service preferences needs to be on the table.