Every few months I feel compelled to write something about the issue of the US Air Force’s hoped-by Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRSB), Next Generation Bomber, 2018 Bomber, or whatever they’re calling it these days. Over the past few weeks, the prompt has been this snippet from Inside Defense:
The Pentagon's new bomber acquisition program will propel annual Air Force spending on its long-range strike inventory to $10 billion within a decade, more than three times higher than the Defense Department estimated a year ago, according to a new DOD report. (“New Bomber To Drive Long-Range Strike Costs To $10 Billion Per Year,” 24 June 2013)
In thinking about how bad the economics of this LRSB could get in the future, it’s useful to think about how things have gone in the past. Specifically, I’m thinking of two USAF weapons programs of the late Cold War, bought for roughly the same purpose:
- The B-1 Lancer intercontinental bomber was designed in the 1970s, cancelled (as the B-1A) by Jimmy Carter, and brought back (as the B-1B) by Ronald Reagan. The basic point of the B-1B was to penetrate air defenses, while flying from far away, to drop a lot of nuclear gravity bombs—if it could get to a bunch of different targets in sequence. Ultimately 100 were produced, and about two-thirds of those are still flying with the USAF today, just with strictly conventional weapons. Eventually, the B-1B was taken out of nuclear service, and reserved for carrying only conventional munitions, to comply with delivery system limits.
- The LGM-118A Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile was similarly conceived in the 1970s and built in the 1980s. The basic point of the LGM-118A was to penetrate missile defenses, while flying from over the North Pole, to dispense multiple, independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs)—basically nuclear bombs. Only 50 missiles were ever deployed, though they collectively carried 500 nuclear warheads. By 2005, all had been retired from service, ostensibly to comply with treaty limits, even though the START II accord mandating their removal never actually came into force.
But if the US had too many nuclear-armed bombers, why was not the much older B-52H chosen for this downgrade instead? Clearly survivability had nothing to do with it. It is sometimes noted that the B-1B has a much smaller radar cross-section than that of the B-52H, and that its top speed of Mach 1.2 makes it more survivable against surface-launched missiles than the B-52H, which lumbers along at a mere Mach 0.86. I find those arguments unconvincing. The USAF cannot at once claim that the F-35A is so important because its F-15s and F-16s will be unable to survive against Russian-built S-300s and S-400s, and simultaneously assert that the B-1Bs is useful for penetrating anything. If the USAF only needed to worry about a small set of countries that might have the latest Russian missiles, then it would only need to buy a small number of stealth fighter-bombers. But it can’t have the argument both ways. Moreover, none of these bombers have any defensive armament, so in daylight, they’re all equally toast before an enemy fighter. Hostile incursions would require fighter escort either way.
Rather, while I don’t have the decision briefs from that call, I suspect that much of the motivation came from the B-1B’s higher operating costs. It’s a swing-wing, supersonic plane, and keeping those flying isn’t cheap. Most other countries with nuclear weapons agree that aircraft aren’t the first choice for a means of delivery. Russia maintains a single unit of long-range, nuclear-armed aircraft, the 121st Guards Bomber Regiment; of its 16 Tupolev 160s, only about eleven are said to be combat-ready at any time, and all rely on cruise missiles. Britain retired its nuclear bomber force in the 1980s. France today has comparatively short-ranged fighter-bombers in that role. China may have more, but though it’s hard to say, given China’s secrecy about its nuclear weapons program.
And really, whatever the US SIOP might say, expecting single bombers to drop multiple nuclear gravity weapons on single sorties, while nuclear weapons are going off all over the place, is a bit much. So, if the B-1B was going to be a nuclear-tipped cruise missile carrier anyway, then the cheaper-to-fly B-52H would be the logical plane to keep in that mission. Afterwards, if further budget cuts required retiring another fleet, killing off the B-1B would be less painful, as it would be the more expensive plane, and the one lacked the nuclear role anyway.
The B-2 has turned out to be a different deal—it’s stealthy, as this LRSB is planned to be, so we can hope that it will continue to fly through swarms of surface-to-air missiles. But I maintain that the fielding of the B-2 hasn’t been militarily decisive. Technologically, impressive, to be sure, but what war would have gone materially worse for the United States had it not been built? What war would have occurred had its deterrent effect not been available? The B-2’s 6,000-mile range is impressive, but it is also possibly unnecessary today. Sure, Spirits flew all the way from Missouri to targets in Yugoslavia in 1999 and Libya in 2012, but so what? Shorter-ranged bombers could assuredly have been stationed in Italy for those missions. And the B-2’s single assault on Afghanistan in 2001 could have been accomplished with aerial refueling from Diego Garcia.
Similarly, if the entire B-1B fleet were paid off tomorrow, in estimating the reduction in actual capabilities for the USAF, one should think about just what the USAF has done in the past few decades that it wouldn’t have been able to do again. Again, I argue that no campaign since the end of the Cold War that would have missed the bombers, because escorted B-52Hs, F-15Es, or F-117s would have been able to have handled the missions.
So, in thinking of whatever should replace those B-52s and B-1Bs eventually, we should ask whether a future bomber really needs to be able to strike targets from the other side of the world. Range demands size, but size leads to cost, and the costs are already pretty impressive. Whether manned or not, these new bombers are supposedly subject to a long-term cost cap of $550 million per plane. If you really want that to turn out so, then I might recommend a target cost of not more than $350 million per plane. Yes, I sort-of made up that figure, but given the USAF’s track record in controlling its costs in long-range bomber procurement has been really, really bad. The last USAF bomber program that didn't have a massive cost overrun was that of (yes, you guessed it) the B-52, way back in 1952. The B-58 was a fiasco, the B-70 was cancelled, the B-1B probably never should have been built, and the B-2A turned out to be a two-billion dollar airplane. Admittedly, that last problem was only because the Cold War ended suddenly, and the massive non-recurring development costs couldn’t be amortized across a lot more planes. But even the B-2A’s originally intended mission—hunting for mobile Soviet nuclear missiles—was a ludicrous idea. If the whole USAF couldn’t find Scuds in the Iraqi desert, this wasn’t going to happen across Siberia.
In that context, I must ask—can the Air Force be trusted to get this right? Really, after the KC-X fix, the JCA subterfuge, the rigged CSAR-X bid, and the near-doubling of the price of an F-35 over time, why do we think that the Air Force Department can be trusted to get any aircraft development program right? Honestly, I am beginning to think that there is something wrong with that organization.
Thus, I ask, if there is to be another bomber, why should not this bomber be something sized more like the RAF’s old Vulcan? An aircraft carrying a brace of precision-guided 500-pounders for 2,000 miles still reigns a lot of destruction from a distance providing sound standoff from land-based missiles aimed at their bases. The other advantage of scaling back the size and range is that it scales up the numbers. This would also be more useful against China, as more bombers could be based in northern Japan, or possibly again in the Philippines, still out of easy missile range, but sufficiently numerous that the inevitable losses could be absorbed.
Alternatively, there remains the possibility, as former Pentagon weapons-tester Tom Christie suggested to David Axe in The Atlantic last year, that this whole program is a sacrificial lamb for coming budget debates. In this line of thinking, the air marshals who run the USAF know that they’ll never get this built; they’re just building the funny-money budget wedge so that a few years from now, they can offer this LRSB, still then a mere paper airplane, instead of the F-35s and KC-46s that will be rolling down Lockheed and Boeing’s production lines.
If this is a strong possibility, then who should want to kill the program? That’s easy. Lockheed Martin should have a strong interest, chiefly to protect its quantities in the F-35 program, as that would be the way that the USAF would get its stealthy bomb bays. Boeing should also consider just whether its possible role in an LRSB program would actually offset possible reductions in its quantities in the KC-46 program, as many more tankers would be required to top off the greater number of fighters than the lesser number of bombers. And of course, the US Navy should get gleeful, as its cruise missile ships and carriers would then become more valuable in delivering precision firepower at a distance around the world.
For all three, the argument should be easy: any future bomber’s survivability depends on its invisibility, never feasible in daylight, and only so certain at night if potential enemies’ air defenses do not catch up with the stealthiness of the aircraft, which is essentially determined at the time of its design. The B-52H is still in service because its survivability is a matter of standoff, and its missiles can be repeatedly upgraded for far less cost than building a new bomber. The Minuteman III is still in service because ballistic missile defense is, as the Pentagon’s mixed record of testing shows, just technically very challenging. But the B-2A is hardly ever used, either because it doesn’t matter, or because folks are deathly afraid of losing one. Either way, that notion of a big, penetrating bomber seems a fragile but budget-busting approach to weapons design. For those who are interested, this thing shouldn’t be that hard to kill.