Secrecy May Doom America’s Lethal New B-21 Bomber
Yet even before the GAO decision, the lobbying had started. Boeing’s defense unit is headquartered in St. Louis, and the company briefed Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. After the briefing, Blunt told Politico, “It certainly seems to me that there is a potential basis for that protest, and I’m going to look carefully at it.”
Now that the GAO has blessed the Air Force’s decision, how can the service defend its choice, without revealing too much about the B-21, as future challenges inevitably occur?
Here’s one way: It could point out the importance of controlling weight. Increased weight is the deadliest sin of aircraft development, as nothing else destroys performance faster. As weight increases, the aircraft needs more fuel, its range decreases and it costs more to build—all part of a self-perpetuating spiral into poorer performance with no way out.
The Air Force can defend its Northrop decision by discussing Northrop’s better past performance on weight. Both companies missed their predicted gross weights on their two former stealth designs, the B-2 and the F-22, but Lockheed missed its projection by 44 percent more than Northrop.
By moving the B-21 program from dark gray to the light gray realm, it could make this gross weight argument to Congress and the public.
In an era of fiscal restraint, the Air Force should declassify some aspects of its B-21 program to allow the public to better understand the differences between the Boeing and Northrop bomber designs, much as the Air Force did with the Advanced Tactical Fighter program in which the Lockheed YF-22 and Northrop YF-23 competed.
The Air Force may also consider naming its new bomber the B-3, which would comply with the Department of Defense designation instructions, and eliminate the speculation that the Air Force has 18 other bombers, the B-3 through the B-20, hidden in Area 51 or on the drawing board.
The open discussion would eliminate suspicions that follow black programs, properly inform the Congress, and allow the public to understand whether or not the Air Force made the correct decision.
Fights for funding are de rigueur around the Pentagon, and they get nastier the larger the sum of funding in question. Why? Because the number of weapons the military claims it needs regularly exceeds appropriations by billions of dollars. The recent announcement that the Department of Defense will reduce the number of F-35s it will procure provides some evidence of this.
Retired Air Force Gen. Mike Lowe realistically summarized the looming problem and a possible solution. “You are going to have to fight for [the B-21] every day, every week, every month, every year, because there are people out there that are going to try to kill it, they are all over this town,” Lowe said during a Feb. 18 event hosted by the Mitchell Institute, according to Defense News. “The sooner the Air Force can release the team, the industry team on [the B-21], the more support you are going to get. If you don’t do that, it isn’t going to survive.”
Since the A-12 was a black project, the Navy was restricted from publicly fighting for its funding. By contrast, the Air Force could speak publicly about the need to preserve the budget for its F-22 stealth fighter, even if many of the program’s details remained classified. To avoid the fate of the A-12, the Air Force’s new B-21 bomber program will need to be gray enough to allow for a public defense.
James Stevenson is the former editor of the Navy Fighter Weapons School’s Topgun Journal and Air Safety Week. Author of The $5 Billion Misunderstanding and The Pentagon Paradox. This article first appeared in War Is Boring.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy.