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Is the Air Force's Next Nuclear Bomber Trying to Get Itself Fired?

The Air Force is poised to announce who will build its next, $550 million stealth bomber. Except it won't just drop bombs.
October 26, 2015, 9:30pm
Photo by Andrew Carroll

The US Air Force is poised to do one of its very least favorite things: kicking off a gigantic new weapons program right in the middle of campaign season. According to Bloomberg's Anthony Capaccio, the air force will announce Tuesday who gets to build its next stealth bomber, the (oh so inventively-named) Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B as it's commonly known by defense wonks. Sometime tomorrow, the Air Force is expected to award the contract to one of these two teams to design and build the bomber. Either the contract is going to go to Northrop Grumman (the maker of the B-2 bomber) or a joint bid between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. And regardless of who wins, their PR team is going to be working a lot of overtime real fast.

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The program announcement is one thing, but the fact that it's coming during campaign season means pundits and politicos will be furiously scrambling to score points turning the bomber into a political lightning rod.

The bomber, which will start flying in about 10 years, will ultimately replace the other three bombers currently in the US inventory: the ancient B-52 (which first flew in 1952), the venerable B-1 (maiden flight in 1974), and the B-2 (which first flew in 1989). All of these aircraft are already pretty long in the tooth and are expected to remain in service for at least another quarter-century before being phased out.

Any major defense program essentially comes down to questions of cost and benefit: is it worth X amount to pay for Y capability? So we can expect to see long and bitter arguments over the LRS-B in two flavors: a cost argument and a benefit argument.

Related: Introducing the Pentagon's New 'Third Offset Strategy': Welcoming Your New Robot Overlords

At last count, the US Air Force was promising that it could keep the cost down to a (relatively) subdued $550 million average per plane. Which, over the planned 100 plane production run, would come to total of $55 billion dollars. This is actually less pricey in inflation-adjusted terms than the infamously expensive B-2 bomber.

It's also a cost that a lot of people are going to immediately claim is complete bullshit. Which brings us to the first problem with debating a major program like this. When the government uses this word "cost," it does not mean what you think it means. For instance, the $550 million is 2010 dollars, but in 2015 money, it comes to $600 million. This $550 million figure is also what's called the Average Procurement Unit Cost, or APUC. That is the price of the entire program, from research & development to flying the plane away from the factory -- plus some spare parts, support equipment, and whatnot -- divided by the number of planes being purchased. Other, more recent estimates of the cost place it at closer to $800 million per plane.

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However, neither of those numbers cover the total cost of the plane over its lifetime. That average cost to buy the plane doesn't cover the costs of operating the plane, and so on and so forth. The heavyweight bean counters of the Pentagon have many, many different ways to talk price. Which are all slightly different and rarely described in breathless and bitter arguments about cost.

By my count, there are (I think) actually seven different ways that the Pentagon uses to describe what something costs, based on what counts and what doesn't when talking price. With this wide range of "real" cost numbers (which will change from year to year), you can expect observers to launch into many, and often logically weak, arguments, with people deciding which number is most "accurate" based on whether they like the program or not. Like as not, this will be followed almost immediately by allegations that other people are complete lying scumbags when they use one of the other half-dozen ways to count costs.

To be fair, the program will almost certainly run more than $55 billion in total. Major defense programs blow through budgets the way people blow through Girl Scout cookies: Quickly, and with little remorse. But there's at least one thing that's happened in Pentagon-land that gives some small cause for hope. The Navy's new Virginia-class submarines are (relatively speaking) not too extravagantly pricey because the Navy has been ruthless about controlling costs and avoiding the siren call of added, fancy features that bring cost up very quickly.

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That's not to say that the LRS-B will succeed in managing costs, but only to point out that there's a least one case in the known, observable universe where a current program has kept the lid on costs. Who knows? Maybe lighting will strike twice.

But even if the Air Force can keep costs down, it doesn't mean that the political-media complex will easily give up on the sheer joy of savaging a major government program. The second part of the fight will be over the usefulness of the bomber.

Most of the arguments over this program will be ones that wouldn't have been out of place three decades ago, the last time the US bought a new bomber. There are entire volumes of op-eds, columns, and articles written about the merits and purpose of bombers in the modern era. Impassioned arguments abound on whether they are relevant in today's world, or just an expensive anachronism.

In this case, it's actually a bit unfortunate that the discussion of benefits will be so quickly channeled into predictable ruts, because the LRS-B could actually turn out to be an interesting critter, at least in terms of redefining the job of a bomber and how such a plane is supposed to be used.

When the B-2 bomber was being designed, it turns out that nobody really had a good, solid handle on stealth aircraft and everything you could do with them. The job description was pretty straightforward: In the event of a nuclear war, the B-2 bombers were supposed to fly deep into Soviet territory, and mill around hunting ballistic missiles on trucks, assisted by intel provided by reconnaissance satellites.

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Fortunately for everyone, the US and USSR never got around to having their nuclear war, so the US figured out what other stuff they could or couldn't do with their plane.

There's a very important thing to realize about stealth aircraft. Despite the hype, they aren't full-out invisible to radar, just a lot harder to see. It's like stealth aircraft are very well camouflaged but aren't so fully invisible that they can just traipse around anywhere they want in broad daylight. Thus, for a B-2 to fly wherever it wants and sneak around in hostile airspace, it actually has to be very good at detecting radar signals in advance and planning accordingly.

Which, when you think about it, is basically a kind of reconnaissance. So, in other words, the B-2 bomber kind of changed the job description of "bomber": From a plane that flies around and drops bombs, to a role as a sophisticated intelligence-gathering spy plane that can sneak around and collect all kinds of information about air defense networks, gaps in coverage, and so on, while also being able to drop bombs.

Well, what of it? So what if it's both a spy plane and a bomber? Well, spy planes don't usually carry bombs. Bombers usually don't carry along a lot of fancy spy gear when they're on bombing missions. They're normally both very different kinds of specialist planes with different jobs. But, neither is complete without the other. Since they do closely related stuff, it would be great if there were an easy way for the bomber and spy plane crews to swap information in real time.

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In fact, it would be so great that some very smart Russian generals got all excited about this idea and wrote about it in the mid-1980s. The concept is something they called the reconnaissance-strike complex, and the long and short of it is that by combining very fancy sensors and precision weapons you could make conventional weapons ten or twenty times more effective. So effective, in fact, that smart bombs might even get as effective as nuclear weapons for taking out some kinds of specific military targets.

And that's what the LRS-B will be designed to do.

Which leads to one of those minor details that would have been shocking and unimaginable the last time the US had a big round of debates about bombers. Although the LRS-B is being discussed as the Air Force's next nuclear bomber, the plane may be good enough at bombing things in general that it will be in service for years before it's upgraded to carry nuclear weapons. So yes, the US Air Force's new nuclear bomber is supposed to be such a good bomber that it won't be able to (at least for some years) do any nuclear bombing.

Assuming, of course, it doesn't cost too much.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Picture via Flickr