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.

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

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