A $550 million Air Force bomber so good it will never be used
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 The Pentagon is increasingly worried that its existing fleet of about 160 B-52s, B-1s and B-2s is largely outdated, vulnerable to the newest Chinese- and Russian-made air defenses.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.