The earliest discussion of the U.S. Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, revolved around one talking point: Price. By relying on existing, proven technologies, with incremental, architectural innovation (the assembly of existing technologies in new ways), the U.S. defense industry could supply the Air Force with a next generation long-range bomber aircraft. And the price seemed, if not modest, certainly not extravagant. The LRS-B program promised eighty to 100 bombers at $550 million per plane, more expensive than the F-22 or F-35, but on the lower side of what you might expect for a replacement strategic bomber.
A focus on affordability seems odd for the premier weapon system of one of the four military services of the world’s most powerful country. But the focus is not misplaced. The Pentagon as a whole has struggled with cost overruns on its major projects, and the Air Force has suffered the most. Its last three major combat aircraft projects (the B-2, F-22, and F-35) have all suffered drastic cost overruns. The predecessor to the LRS-B, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, went into a classic “death spiral” with only 21 aircraft eventually entering service. The expected number of F-22s dropped from 750 to 187. And while the problems with the F-35 cannot be entirely laid at the feet of the Air Force, overruns still threaten to reduce the total buy of F-35As. Cost and technology problems also extend to the KC-46, the Air Force’s replacement aerial refueling tanker.
The lesson is straightforward: Cost overruns kill planes, much more effectively than enemy fighters or sophisticated SAM systems.
Consequently, the Pentagon and the Air Force have tried to design a plane that can evade not only enemy missiles, but also added costs. The affordability fight has a three-headed problem, at the national level, the governmental level, and the service level.
For all the concern and hand-wringing about the size of the defense budget in the United States, the nation continues to spend more, by far, on defense technology than any other country. Only the United States and one or two other countries can even contemplate projects with the size and scope of the LRS-B. But because people understand that the money for ambitious projects is available, the contractors, services, defense conglomerates and politicians to take steps that increase costs over time.
The Pentagon itself has struggled to manage costs, especially on high technology systems such as the LRS-B. The problem becomes acute when a project is designed to operate as a bridge between services, which is one reason why joint projects (like the F-35) see the highest cost overruns. A system that needs to serve multiple masters suffers from their demands; capabilities and costs pile up. Although the LRS-B is not a joint project, it is expected to fill a joint role in the Pentagon’s warfighting vision for East Asia.
Of the three services, the Air Force tends to suffer the most consistent and severe cost overruns. Air Force advocates explain this, not unreasonably, as a consequence of the sensitivity of the service’s equipment to changes in technology. Especially as the distance between conception and initial operability increases (as it has with all procurement projects across the services), changes in technology wreak havoc with original designs, leading to cost overruns. Aircraft depend more (in structural terms) on technology than land or naval equipment, and thus undergo more severe cost overruns. An extraordinary degree of cultural sensitivity to technological change in the Air Force probably doesn’t help.
This explains the deep skepticism about Air Force claims regarding the modest projected cost of the LRS-B. The LRS-B promises to avoid the problems that normally create cost overruns by taking a more cautious approach to advanced technologies and production techniques, and by insulating the design and bidding process as much as possible. In a sense, the LRS-B offers a path to the 132 B-2s that the Air Force wanted three decades ago, only with twenty years of technology upgrades that serve to make the plane both cheaper and more effective.
But in another sense, the LRS-B project, like the F-35, is the focal point of a system of access-oriented systems. It can operate as a key enabler in a chain of weapons and sensors, making possible what used to be known as “Air-Sea Battle,” but is better understood as the full integration of naval and air assets in the Western Pacific. That’s great, but it also sounds ambitious, and ambition is dangerous.
Strategic bomber projects are, as a rule, not known for this level of modesty. Virtually every strategic bomber that the Air Force has flown since the B-10 Martin (when the Air Force was still the U.S. Army Air Corps) has promised a revolutionary transformation in the nature of air warfare. The economy-based rollout of the LRS-B is a welcome, if curious, change from this trend.
Does a focus on cost control mean sacrifices in the capability of the bomber? Sure. And this is the problem. The manageable cost of the LRS-B is premised upon the modesty of its ambition. When we begin to think about what the LRS-B could be, potentially the Queen in the chessboard of U.S. Pacific capabilities, we’re flying into dangerous skies. The design and production modifications needed to keep the LRS-B integrated with the complex, ever-changing system of Navy and Air Force technologies will inevitably result in delays and cost increases.
Air Force bombers have performed admirably well in the conventional conflicts that have characterized the post-Cold War world, but the LRS-B will be the first bomber not designed specifically for delivering nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union. It will also become one of the centerpieces of the Asian Pivot, a weapon designed with the threat of China uppermost in the minds of its engineers.
Not all of the 160 bombers in the Air Force’s existing inventory need to be replaced by a long range, stealthy strike aircraft. Many of the existing bombers perform missions that multi-role fighter-bombers can replicate without too much trouble. But if the expense of the LRS-B grows in the way that many worry, the size of the overall bomber force may decline dramatically. As the Pentagon moves into the selection (and eventually production) process, it needs to keep cost control firmly in mind.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
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