A $550 million Air Force bomber so good it will never be used

October 22, 2015
A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber flies over northern Iraq after conducting air strikes in Syria

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber flies over northern Iraq after conducting air strikes in Syria against Islamic State targets, September 27, 2014. The planned new bomber would make this one seem like a relic. REUTERS/Handout

The Air Force wants a new bomber so that it never actually has to use it.

The Defense Department recently announced it will soon pick a contractor to build a new stealth bomber for the Air Force. The potentially $80-billion Long-Range Strike Program is a big deal, particularly for the Air Force. It hasn’t developed a new bomber in more than 30 years. The Pentagon is increasingly worried that its existing fleet of about 160 B-52s, B-1s and B-2s is largely outdated, vulnerable to the newest Chinese- and Russian-made air defenses.

The Air Force wants up to 100 new bombers armed with all the latest weaponry and radar-evading stealth technology — and plenty of fuel. For the new warplanes must be able to fly long distances, penetrate even the heaviest defenses and destroy scores of targets in a single bombing run.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Pentagon really believes it will be fighting a war against Russia or China. Defense planners instead want the new bombers to reinvigorate a once-key concept that the military has allowed to atrophy: conventional deterrence.

By deploying high-tech armaments of such fearsome nonnuclear destructive power, the mere presence of such weapons should give pause to U.S. enemies. This would buy time so diplomats could negotiate to work out major conflicts without anyone resorting to violence.

Bomber genesis

The new bomber has been a long time in the making. As early as 2004, Air Force planners began talking about buying new heavy warplanes and introducing them into service as early as 2018. The planes would partly replace B-52s, which were built in the 1960s, B-1s, which date to the 1980s, and 1990s-vintage B-2s.


Still of B-52 bomber in “Dr. Strangelove.” Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

But in 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the bomber effort on hold; he cited the Air Force’s tendency to develop overly complex and expensive warplanes. The flying branch had intended to buy 132 of the radar-evading B-2s. But the stratospheric costs and post-Cold War budget cuts made that goal unrealistic. The Air Force ended up getting just 21 B-2s, at a price of more than $2 billion a plane, including research and development costs.

The Pentagon allowed the Air Force to restart bomber development in 2011, but with a firm cap on the costs. Each of the up to 100 new bombers could cost no more than $550 million, or roughly $800 million, including research and development. Northrop Grumman, which built the B-2, is competing against a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the contract, which should be awarded later this year.

The Air Force is aiming for the new bombers to be on air base ramps by the mid-2020s — just a decade after the signing of the contract. This in an era when major warplane programs can take 20 years or more from contract to fielding.

“We have to build affordability, right from the beginning, into our new programs, whenever we have the opportunity to do so,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a 2014 press conference, “… [T]hat’s what we did with the Long-Range Strike Bomber.”

The relatively low cost and quick deployment timeline are feasible because the Air Force is urging the industry teams to include as much existing, or “mature,” technology as possible in their designs — rather than reinventing everything from scratch, as is often the case. One unnamed official told Aaron Mehta of Defense News that the new bomber has the “highest level of maturity” he’d ever seen in a warplane program.

This newfound discipline reflects the Pentagon’s serious interest in acquiring new bombers. The military has come to believe that new bombers will play a crucial role in preventing full-scale war between the major powers.

Peace through strength

That wasn’t always the case.

In the early 2000s, the Defense Department had proposed to wait until 2037 for a new bomber. That made sense at the time. Russia was still suffering economic hardship and political dysfunction. Moscow had yet to begin asserting itself militarily as it has since in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and other countries along its periphery.

China’s economic and military expansion was then just beginning. Beijing was still years away from making forceful claims in the China Seas.

One of three Air Force Global Strike Command B-2 Spirit bombers returns to home base at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri

One of three Air Force Global Strike Command B-2 Spirit bombers returns to home base at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, March 20, 2011. REUTERS/Kenny Holston/U.S. Air Force photo/Handout

Meanwhile, the United States was fighting major counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan against low-tech foes who had no means of shooting down high-flying bombers. The Air Force’s B-2s, B-1s and B-52s were able to fly missions over Iraq and Afghanistan without crews having to worry much about enemy defenses. There was no compelling need for a high-tech new bomber — as long as the older bombers were still perfectly adequate for the wars at hand.

Today, U.S. military strategy — and the world’s — has changed. The U.S. occupation of Iraq has concluded; the West’s coalition in Afghanistan ended its frontline ground-combat mission in late 2014. U.S. warplanes, including B-1s, are waging an intensive air campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. But in July, the Air Force secretary said a resurgent Russia was the biggest threat to U.S. national security, a sentiment that Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the same month.

The Pentagon is developing the Long Range Strike Bomber with this new threat assessment in mind. “We need to get ahead of the curve when it comes to the enormous and very rapid change that we’re seeing in our world,” James said in her press conference last year. “We have to maintain that technological edge.”

Russia produces the best surface-to-air missile systems in the world, and China’s missiles are nearly as good. To pose any substantive opposition to Russian and Chinese forces, the Long Range Strike Bomber needs to be able to penetrate these defenses by avoiding detection. The new bomber is intended to be stealthier than the famously elusive B-2, sources told Defense News. The B-2’s “flying wing” shape and special surface coating are designed to scatter some radar waves and absorb others, helping minimize the plane’s “signature” on enemy radar scopes.

But for all this effort in tailoring the Long Range Strike Bomber to defeat Russian and Chinese defenses, the Pentagon still hopes the new warplane will never drop a bomb on either one. They instead talk about it as having a stabilizing effect.

Crisis stability

The Air Force has good reason to subscribe to this theory, as counterintuitive as it might sound. In 2013, the aviation branch commissioned Forrest E. Morgan, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a California policy organization, to determine how well certain military forces could stabilize an escalating international crisis without ever firing a shot.

“Crisis stability and the means of achieving and maintaining it — crisis management — are not about warfighting,” Morgan wrote. “They are about building and posturing forces in ways that allow a state, if confronted, to avoid war without backing down.”


President John F. Kennedy with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (R) at the National Security Council Executive Committee meeting in the White House Cabinet Room, October 29, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Cecil Stoughton

The Cuban missile crisis is one prominent, if imperfect, example that Morgan analyzed in his study. In response to the U.S. nuclear buildup in Europe, the Soviet Union, in 1962, began building missile sites in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy deployed U.S. forces around Cuba, and the Soviets backed down — after Kennedy agreed to dismantle some U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe.

Military shows of force around Cuba, if at times risky and clumsy, positioned both the United States and the Soviet Union to be able to reach a peaceful settlement without either side suffering humiliation.

The United States and other countries took the same approach to major potential conflicts throughout the 20th century. But crisis-management practices fell out of favor following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Morgan’s study urges a revival. “The reemergence of great-power competitors,” he warned, “will make dangerous interstate confrontations increasingly likely in the future.” Morgan examined other historical examples and compared how the deployment of different weapons — bombers, fighter jets and missile-armed submarines — helped ease tensions by making actual combat unthinkably costly. Sometimes, however, it also worsened them, by surprising the enemy and forcing a panicky reaction.

“Stability requires forces that are powerful enough to deter a potential enemy,” Morgan wrote, “but employable in ways that minimize their exposure to surprise attack.”

Morgan’s conclusion is unequivocal. Fighter jets, capable of flying only short distances, must deploy so close to the enemy that they could attack — and be attacked – quickly. This makes a destabilizing surprise attack dangerously tempting for what Morgan calls a “risk-tolerant” country.

Submarines, because they are underwater most of the time and thus invisible, can prove even more surprising — and thus destabilizing. What’s more, a submarine can’t “signal,” to borrow Morgan’s term. Signaling is when a country deliberately but carefully deploys highly visible forces as a statement to its enemy that doesn’t want to go to war — but could if diplomacy fails.

Long-range bombers deployed far from enemy shores are the most stabilizing weaponry, in Morgan’s assessment. “Bombers generate a potent deterrent threat,” he wrote, “without exposing U.S. forces to an inordinate amount of vulnerability to surprise attack.”

But there’s a catch here. To back up their threat, the bombers must actually be capable of penetrating enemy defenses — and that disqualifies older models, according to Morgan. To keep the peace between major powers, the Air Force needs a high-tech new bomber that, ironically, is fully capable of wreaking havoc on U.S. enemies.

If this all works as expected, in coming months the Pentagon will tap a contractor to build the Long Range Strike Bomber. A decade later, those bombers will be available to deploy in crises pitting the United States against a fellow world power. Then, if all goes according to plan, the fearsome new bombers will never, ever drop a single bomb.


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Pretty much a worthless boondoggle, cash cow for defense lobbies, and a misuse of tax dollars that are needed for real problems here at home.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive

I think the nuclear missile subs we have are the best deterrent. Bombers can be sensed from space sensors now, not just ground or air radar.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Still waiting for the $60 million F-35’s (now $150 to $180 mill/plane). The only way the USAF will get a bomber for $500 million is to take COTS 747’s and have a couple of airmen kick pallets of 550 lb bombs out the cargo door!

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive

A “hammer” that you use and demonstrate from time to time beats the hell out of a symbol. When each plane is $500 million how many can you have and what is the plan when you lose 1 or 10? Classic BS project.

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive

It is hard to believe that a heavy bomber which needs to emit a lot of energy for weight and speed cannot be detected somewhere in the spectrum. Heat cannot be suppressed, near optical can detect planets around stars light years away. Now cheap aerial and surface drones can screen a perimeter with a mesh spacing just 10s of kms. Even Australia came up with the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar by experimenting and developing in unexpectedly low frequencies, with a range of 3000 km, so that US carriers or Russian missile cruisers cannot get within strike distance without being pinpointed.
Expect the unexpected.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

With the current rate of accommodation and retreat, these won’t be needed in ten years.

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

The entire point of strategic weapons is the hope that they will never have to be used. The US and British nuclear weapons systems were successful in that mission. No nuclear attack took place from the Soviet Union or China. I would say that was a good thing. The new bombers will have an additional role of conventional but overwhelming attacks against rogue states or non-state actors.

Posted by zilwiki | Report as abusive

Have a great day.

Posted by Lyn4U | Report as abusive

Quite the same as Putin’s gimmick army deployments. But a little more effective I guess.

Posted by Jesse_Eek | Report as abusive

# “the mere presence of such weapons should give pause to US enemies”
Cold-war thinking from 1955 does not address current issues with terrorist groups who are not deterred by “mutually-assured destruction” (MAD), and has been mostly a failure (as policy) since the late Sixties.

Posted by moebadderman | Report as abusive

Could the day come where ‘fearsome nonnuclear destructive power’ is accepted by the consensus of future global humankind as a folly, of limited technological flowdown. Grand proportioning of vast limited and precious of earths resources to deter nation state wrath upon one another is so 1950s. Come now protagonists who have been fooled into believing that we cannot all resonate as one peoples to further civilisation into the 22nd Century AD. A nice coat of diamond white Imron finish and progress the C1 into a tool that can be used to help Mankind.

Posted by Fael | Report as abusive

“To keep the peace between major powers, the Air Force needs a high-tech new bomber that, ironically, is fully capable of wreaking havoc on U.S. enemies.”

Ironic? To think of such an elementary idea as ironic, you would have to start from a position of deep ignorance. You don’t have to read Kahn to understand basic psychology or basic game theory.

Posted by inpoverty | Report as abusive

(and their willingness to use that capability)

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

This article is biased and wrong.


Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

These must be the same USG morons who allowed muslims into America, ergo 9/11
Its time we built a decent wall, tossed Barry and his illegal aliens out
America’s real enemy …. 535 clowns + I Criminal-in-Charge
Impeach the lot for treason, fraud

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

Lessee…for the 42 billion the 21 B-2’s cost, we could have bought off most if not all of our “enemies”. Without a single U.S. soldier dying in the process. Not to mention saving all those operations and maintenance costs.

But hey, why be practical when you can be cool?

Posted by thranx1 | Report as abusive

We need a new line of cluster bombs to kill more ground troops and a warthog replacement to strafe . I don’t see why we are not taking out the 3 mile long lines of ISIS Toyota trucks I see on the news. More stupid thinking by pentagon officers hoping for a job in the defense industry after retirement.

Posted by chuco1 | Report as abusive

Total waste of money. The nuclear deterrent is in place. I would think a cruise missile platform inserted into an aircraft carrier would work better . But a new ship with 50 or less quickly re loadable missiles is a good idea. Why risk a crew of experienced air men that take years to train? So if the weapons are non nuclear why not build a few sub like ships and sink them close to targets. Way cheaper then bombers lol

Posted by mike23662002 | Report as abusive

Expensive plane as a deterrent?!?!? nuts.

Sounds like, given the level of Russian Air defense, that they couldn’t develop anything effective, and safe for crews. Ie…better to use the B-52’s and take the losses…
The idea of buying weapons to not use them is flawed. Unless you just pretend to develop them. But that will have a rude and nasty result when someone finally calls your bluff.

Posted by mac1066bill | Report as abusive

Forget designing against missiles. New high energy weapons will take the aircraft out.

Posted by randydutton | Report as abusive

The $ 550 Million Air Force Bomber is another BOONDOGGLE by the
military strategic staff and the Procurement System to furter out than any other failed/overrun project so far…..upper military is dominated by the personal defense contract interest peddlers and not by their actual needs.
Any and all suggested savings by oner military is close to a calculated $ 30 Billion deferred every time by the special interest…case in point is the disastrous controls over the Vet med. system where so far only ONE has been comfortable relieved from his job1
When is CONGRESS getting their hand’s of our forces and let them do the job they are well prepared to do ….. so billions could get back into their budget without any need to get more for something they just don’t want…
like the new already ineffective class of the medium support vessels that are unable to operate in close ……..on and on…!
I am truly concerned since I do have a grandson at West Point and he loves to serve. For his sake fix the military procurement and we would not need another dime to add to the defense budget now.

Posted by Erzherzog | Report as abusive

Bombers? That’s WWII thinking.

We need a Death Star… :D

Posted by BS101 | Report as abusive