Why Can't the Air Force Build an Affordable Plane?

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Congress and the Pentagon want to commission stealthy new bombers at $550 million apiece. But it's not clear why we need so many expensive features.

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Reuters

When the Obama administration dispatched three B-2 bombers from a Missouri air base on March 19 last year to cross the ocean and reach Libya, it put roughly $9 billion worth of America's most prized military assets into the air. The bat-shaped black bombers, finely machined to elude radar and equipped with bombs weighing a ton apiece, easily demolished dozens of concrete aircraft shelters near Libya's northern coast.

The Air Force points to that successful mission, and thousands of others against insurgents in Afghanistan conducted by older B-1 bombers, while arguing that long-distance, pinpoint expressions of U.S. military power are best carried out by strategic bombers. As a result, th­­e Air Force says, the country needs more and newer versions of them, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars.

Its claims over the last year have impressed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who called the idea "critical" to national security in February budget testimony. It also charmed Congress, which in December slipped an extra hundred million dollars into the defense budget to speed the creation of a top-secret new "Long-Range Strike Bomber." Only that bomber -- among the dozens of major new weapons systems now in development -- was honored with a specific endorsement in the Pentagon's new strategic review, released on January 5.

But the new bomber's future is not assured. While Libyan and Afghan gunners may be no match, the new planes seem likely to encounter major turbulence at home, as a climate of financial austerity begins to afflict the Pentagon for the first time in a decade and other weapons compete to serve its military role.

Critics have expressed concerns that the Air Force will not fit the bombers into its budget, that their preliminary design is too technically ambitious, and that a key potential mission -- conducting bombing raids over China -- is implausible. They also have asked why new planes are needed when old ones are undergoing multi-billion-dollar upgrades.

By all accounts, the Air Force's track record of making bombers the country can afford is dismal. The B-1 program was cancelled mid-stream by the Carter administration after its cost doubled, then revived under President Reagan. The B-2 grew so costly in the early 1990s that the Pentagon ended up buying just a fifth of the aircraft originally planned. 

The B-2s are actually not used much now, partly because few targets justify risking aircraft that cost $3 billion apiece in today's dollars, and partly because their flights by some estimates cost $135,000 per hour -- almost double that of any other military airplane.

The Air Force says the new bomber is slated to cost roughly $55 billion, or about $550 million a plane -- less than a quarter of the price of the B-2. If costs rise, "we don't get a program," Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently told reporters, citing a 2009 warning by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an airpower skeptic, as Gates cancelled an earlier attempt to build a new bomber.

One of the skeptics is Tom Christie, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester from 2001 until his retirement in 2005. He says that if $550 million per copy is the target, "you're talking $2 billion by the time they build the damn thing .... How many times [have] we been through this with bombers? And look where we end up."

"Besides, what do we need it for?" adds Christie, a sardonic scientist who in his three decades working for the military contributed to the design of many of today's most successful warplanes. A jowly man with snow-white hair, Christie has devoted his retirement to highlighting and criticizing what he sees as wasteful Pentagon practices.

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Center for Public Integrity

The new bomber program has been accelerated at a particularly risky moment, when its design -- by the accounts of several top officials -- remains up for grabs. The Air Force has said, for example, that it may or may not be given a nuclear mission at some point in the future, a feature that would add to its price tag. The Air Force has also said it is to be "optionally manned," meaning it conceivably could be flown from a ground station, without a pilot in the cockpit. Nothing similar, involving unmanned, armed aircraft that must survive in a hostile environment, has ever been attempted.

Besides Gates, no critic has been more vocal and posed more of an obstacle to the Air Force's bomber efforts than Marine Corps General James Cartwright, a former fighter pilot who served as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 until retiring in August 2011. The charismatic Cartwright was instrumental in persuading Gates to kill off the Air Force's earlier effort to develop a new bomber. It wasn't until Cartwright's influence waned that the Air Force succeeded in advancing its revived bomber scheme through the Pentagon bureaucracy and Congress.

Cartwright says the nation does need several hundred new "trucks" or inexpensive bomb haulers, without fancy sensors, capable of penetrating advanced air defenses to drop guided bombs. Such weapons can cost around $20,000 apiece, or about a fifth what modern cruise missiles cost. 

But Cartwright says he doubts that the Air Force can develop an effective bomber cheap enough to be bought in adequate numbers. He adds that he is not sure why the Air Force feels a new bomber is needed now and, equally importantly, why the service believes it can afford it. "Those are the right questions," he says.

A record of cost overruns and shifting timetables


The Air Force's bomber troubles stretch a long way back. The last bomber to be developed and purchased without huge cost overruns was the B-52, which began development in the late 1940s. Twice in subsequent decades the Air Force launched a new bomber program in order to replace the now-classic B-52, only to see costs rise and production terminated early. Seventy years after its design was conceived, the B-52 remains America's most numerous strategic bomber.

In 2006, under then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon blessed the Air Force's plan to produce a new bomber by 2018 -- and began channeling money into design efforts. The new plane was supposed to include cutting-edge sensors, communications and weapons, potentially including the world's first operational air-to-air laser cannon -- all of which added to its pricetag.

But after Gates replaced Rumsfeld in late 2006 and Cartwright joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff the following year, Gates canceled the new bomber initiative, citing the same out-of-control technological ambitions that caused the B-2 to cost $3 billion per copy. "It makes little sense to pursue a future bomber ... in a way that repeats this history," Gates said.

"Gates was listening to Cartwright at this point in time," says Barry Watts, a bookish former Air Force and Northrop Grumman program evaluator now working for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

To lower the cost, Gates proposed the Air Force return to the drawing board and look at an unmanned design, echoing Cartwright's own preference. A strictly pilotless bomber could dispense with the cockpit, ejection seats and onboard oxygen systems, thereby reducing cost, Cartwright claims. "Today's weapons and platform technologies allow an aircraft to stay airborne far longer than a human can maintain peak mental and physical performance."

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which vets all federal spending, endorsed Gates' decision at the time. "Current aircraft will be able to meet the threats expected in the foreseeable future," OMB said of the bomber fleet in 2009.

"The OMB statement was actually something of an anomaly," counters Lieutenant General David Deptula, a former fighter pilot and air power champion. "OMB has no military competence and should not be attributed any."

In May last year, Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, met with executives from Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin to discuss the bomber and its technologies in Palmdale. "His intent was to understand what was resident in various contractors' capabilities," a source at the meeting said of Carter. Details of the meeting have not been disclosed, but when Panetta left as head of the CIA to replace Gates and Carter became the deputy defense secretary, both embraced the bomber enthusiastically.

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Center for Public Integrity

"Rebalancing our global posture and presence to emphasize the Asia-Pacific and Middle East areas ... requires an Air Force that is able to penetrate sophisticated enemy defenses and strike over long distances," Panetta said in a February press briefing. "So we will be funding the next-generation bomber."

At the same time, Panetta required that senior Defense Department officials jointly oversee its development. He also opted to defer efforts to certify it for carrying nuclear weapons. That decision reverses the development course of the B-1 and B-2, which were designed to be nuclear-capable from the outset and then re-engineered to carry largely nonnuclear weaponry. That change cost around $4.5 billion for the B-1 fleet alone, in 2001. The Air Force has declined to say what the cost will be of "certifying" the planes later as nuclear-capable.

A cockpit without a pilot

While meant to be at least as stealthy as the B-2, the new bomber is not meant to fly mostly alone into battle, using its own sensors to spot targets and its own electronic defenses to defeat enemy radar. It "won't be a Swiss Army knife" like the B-2, explains Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, "Instead, it will rely on its integration with other systems" -- such as satellites, spy drones and radar-jamming planes.

But one challenging requirement has already crept into the design: It is supposed to be flown as a pilotless drone with only minor tweaks. "It could be manned; it could be unmanned," says Paul Meyer, a Northrop Grumman vice president. On some missions, in short, it might look like a ghost-plane, flying perfectly with no crewmembers in the installed seats.

The Air Force is no stranger to drones -- even large ones. The Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk, with a wingspan greater than the ubiquitous Boeing 737 passenger jet, can stay aloft for 35 hours. Even the Air Force's standard Predator and Reaper, each around the size of a Cessna, routinely fly for 14 hours or more over Afghanistan.

But the Global Hawk is unarmed, and the propeller-driven Predators and Reapers are loud, slow and intended only for patrols in undefended airspace. The Air Force has never fielded a large, high-performance, armed drone warplane -- much less one that can switch between manned and unmanned modes with minimal changes.

From the mid-1990s until 2006, the Pentagon started to develop such a drone under a contract with Boeing and Northrop Grumman. But the program has not produced a combat-ready copy.

Cartwright and Gates said they favored a purely drone bomber -- a sort of pilotless B-52 priced to buy in large numbers. But the Air Force, with a senior leadership dominated by traditional pilots, pushed back; it insisted that a drone would not save money. "By the time you look at a payload of 40,000 pounds, onboard fuel and the airframe itself, adding a crew and cockpit module aren't that big a deal," Rebecca Grant, a consultant to major aerospace firms, told Aviation Week, a trade magazine.

The Air Force also refuses to accept the notion of a pilotless bomber with a possible nuclear mission. "Could you be comfortable with a nuclear-laden RPA? I wouldn't," Air Force chief of staff Schwartz said in a recent speech, using the acronym for "Remotely Piloted Aircraft." As a drone advocate, Cartwright wanted to change that policy. "I don't remember the last time I manned an ICBM," he told a group of Washington, D.C., defense reporters last July.

But with Cartwright out of the picture, the Air Force is not about to shift positions. That means that the new bomber will retain all the risks incumbent in drone design, without the benefit of the potential cost savings that attracted Gates and Cartwright.

All three existing bombers are also getting new sensors, new radios and structural enhancements. Air Force spokesman Sholtis says that "continued modernization of existing aircraft at the expense of any larger leap in technology comes with serious risk. To the extent that we may be required to put our existing, upgraded forces up against more fundamentally advanced air-to-air or surface-to-air threats, we're looking at more airmen potentially dying and more battlefield targets not being hit."

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Center for Public Integrity

But Christie, a veteran observer of the military services' budgetary stratagems, speculates that other factors are at play besides military need. "You have new [Asia-centered] strategy which, on the surface, would seem indicate some rationale for something like this [bomber]," Christie says. But he says it's really an effort to "take advantage of things and jump in there while we can."

Christie says the service might be acting now to prop up its budget and thus protect itself from financial ruin in the early 2020s, when two other major Air Force programs -- a new tanker and the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter -- will also begin full-rate production, potentially under a flat or falling overall defense budget.

By starting a major program now -- any major program -- the service can keep its spending high enough to fend off Pentagon planners seeking funds for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps "You strike while the iron is hot and look at where you are five to 10 years from now," Christie says. Officials think that "hopefully nirvana will come and we'll have double the budgets we had. "



A version of this post also appears at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to producing original investigative journalism.

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David Axe is an independent military correspondent and a writer for the Center for Public Integrity.

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