The U.S. Air Force faces three major modernization programs—replacing fighter and attack airplanes with the F-35, phasing out the KC-135 tanker for the KC-46A and developing a stealth bomber replacement for the B-52 and B-1 with the B-21.
Unfortunately, Congress has not appropriated enough funds to purchase the quantity of airplanes the Air Force claims are required.
There’s another problem. The B-21 program is largely a “dark gray” project. It’s not quite a “black” project, but the details are with very few exceptions secret. We know the bomber’s name, what it looks like—from an official concept photo—and a faint outline of its future missions.
To be sure, there are rationales for secrecy; some convincing, others less so. The Air Force wants to protect its future aircraft from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence agencies. Yet there is also a common—but mistaken—belief that secrecy will prevent attacks on promised funding. According to this theory, when there are few details being discussed publicly, there are fewer reasons to cut the budget.
But this is mistaken.
If the Air Force is serious about building the B-21, keeping the bomber dark gray will prove to be a mistake. Instead, the Air Force should revisit how it successfully outmaneuvered the Navy to preserve its Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) Program by making it less classified, or a lighter gray, out of which came the F-22 Raptor.
By contrast, the Navy’s A-12 Avenger II—a black project which competed with the F-22 for funding—failed.
The story of the A-12
The Navy’s A-12 was a triangular-shaped stealth bomber design that began life in 1984 in the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) Program to replace the venerable A-6 Intruder, the Navy’s long-range deep-strike bomber.
The Navy developed the A-12 within a black program. Even if you held a Secret or Top Secret clearance, you could not access any information on the A-12 unless you received specific access and knew specialized code words.
General Dynamics was so serious about its obligation to keep the A-12 program secure that it prevented its A-12 program engineers from eating near Dorito corn chips for fear the chip’s triangular shape would give away the A-12’s design, sources close to the project once recounted to this author.
Though the A-12 and F-22 programs competed for money from the same pot, both appeared safe since the Cold War showed no signs of ending. One fundamental difference existed between the two programs—the A-12 was a jet-black program, while the F-22 was a dark gray program that became lighter gray over time.
The difference created a survival mechanism for the F-22 and signed a death sentence for the A-12.
The A-12 and F-22 compared
Fighting for disappearing funds is a recurring event. Shortly after the Air Force began developing its replacement for the F-15 with its Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) Program, the Navy began its attempt to replace the deep-strike A-6E Intruder.
The competition to get Congress to appropriate funds played out both in public and behind the scenes. The Navy, desperate for A-12 funding, diverted money Congress had appropriated for other purposes to a secret account within the Naval Supply Systems Command, from which the Navy ladled out money to black programs, including the A-12. Using appropriations for purposes other than what Congress designates is called “mixing the color of money,” a felony.
After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, pressure for a “peace dividend” increased. In July 1990, one month before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney asked Congress for more A-12 money, but his request was rebuffed — an indication that the military budget decline was serious.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, the budgeteers had to scramble for even more money. This fight for funds combined with the impending military action guaranteed that some programs would be radically slowed, reduced or eliminated.
The A-12 ended up as one of those terminated programs.
Cheney withdrew his support for the A-12 contract on Jan. 5, 1991, freeing more than $500 million for the impending war effort that began 10 days later. On the other hand, the F-22 squeaked through, even though the Air Force did not procure its original requirement of 750 F-22s. It eventually managed to squeeze 187 of them out of the budget.
In this case, when black and gray programs competed, the gray program—a lighter shade at that—survived in Darwinian fashion. Even though the A-12 was predicted to cost much less, Congress bankrolled the F-22 while the Navy watched in tears as its A-12 program was carted away.
And since the A-12 was secret, the branch couldn’t mount a public defense.
Protecting the B-21’s future
Within days of the Northrop Grumman Corporation’s winning the Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber (now B-21) competition, Boeing and its junior partner Lockheed filed a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office. At the end of the evaluation period, the GAO ratified the Air Force’s decision to have Northrop Grumman Corporation build the 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.