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Historical Lessons for Air Force’s New Bomber

Last week, the Project On Government Oversight highlighted the affordability and oversight issues surrounding the new Air Force bomber. An editorial in Bloomberg Viewlast Monday raises many of the same concerns, as well as strategic questions about the need for such a large and expensive program.

Little is known about the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). The available information was mostly summed up by Ashton Carter during his confirmation when he described the requirement as “a new generation of stealthy, long-range strike aircraft that can operate at great distances, carry substantial payloads, and operate in and around contested airspace.” Additional specifications have to be inferred from previous programs and U.S. strategic concepts. What is known is the price of the plane, their quantity, and that they will be nuclear-capable: according to the Pentagon, the sticker price for the program is $55 billion for 80 to 100 planes.

Analysts say the cost may be as much as 45 percent higher, and defense contractors have struggled in comparable programs to deliver promised capabilities at promised prices. In the cases of the F-35 and the B-2 (the last fighter and the last bomber), problems have arisen in part due to overly ambitious technologies. The F-35’s novel, but unnecessary, software for self-diagnosing damage continues to be unreliable, to hold back critical testing, and to drive up costs. The B-2 offers another example with its stealth skin. The plane’s skin is so sensitive to moisture and heat that it requires special hangers and mechanics just to stay operational. Consequently, the plane must be based in the United States, which means huge fuel costs (on top of the huge maintenance costs) anytime it flies around the world for use in combat. Just because a feature is technologically possible does not make it the right investment.

These shortcomings raise important questions about what qualities makes a good combat aircraft. As Pierre Sprey, a lead designer of the A-10 and F-16, writes in his essay “Evaluating Weapons: Sorting the Good from the Bad,” the most important thing about combat aircraft is to have quality pilots. Therefore, a key requirement of good aircraft is that they be cheap and stable enough to permit frequent training. If they meet that requirement, then they are likely also affordable enough to be mass-produced and fly a high volume of sorties in actual combat situations. For example, “The F-22 costs 10 times as much as an early model F-16 fighter and, due to its huge maintenance load, can fly only half as many sorties per day. Thus, for equal investment, the F-22 delivers only one-twentieth as many airplanes over enemy territory as the F-16—a crippling disadvantage.” The F-35 and B-2 clearly fail these criteria, and it’s important that these costly mistakes are not repeated with the LSRB.

A key corollary for Sprey is that, “not all weapons are equally important in war. Their importance is unrelated to their cost.” For example, “$15 million close air support planes [like the A-10] will clearly contribute far more to saving American troops in trouble and to winning wars than $2.2 billion B-2s or $160-plus million ‘multipurpose’ fighters like the F-35.” It is worth reappraising the requirements that drove up costs in comparable programs: Were they ever necessary, and if so, are they still necessary in an age of drones and terrorism? These are open questions, and so is whether a new bomber is needed at all.

The National Defense Authorization Act could potentially improve oversight of the LRSB. The House version of the NDAA includes a provision requiring the Government Accountability Office tostudy the LRSB. It requires the GAO to “include an examination of the bomber program’s technology maturity in comparison with other Air Force acquisition programs at similar milestone events,” a possible reference to the still-immature technologies of the F-35. It’s also worth noting that the NDAAcuts $460 million from the plane’s research and development funding. While R&D can improve well-defined programs, the Air Force has a history of wasting money researching and developing technologies it does not need. Without more transparency there is no way to know, but the cut potentially reflects congressional attention to that issue with the LRSB.

These are positive steps, but Congress will need to act on the GAO’s findings and recommendations—assuming the study requirement makes it into the final version of the NDAA. Americans should have little faith that the Air Force or Congress will be more responsible with their money this time than they were with the F-35, F-22, or B-2. The GAO report could provide taxpayers much needed transparency, and be the basis for future LRSB oversight. History tells us it will be needed.

Read the full column in Bloomberg View.