How much will new U.S. stealth bomber really cost? Nobody knows.

November 3, 2015
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Illustration of next generation long-range strike airplane. Courtesy of Northrop Grumman

The Defense Department on Oct. 27 selected Northrop Grumman to build a new U.S. strategic bomber fleet. Between 80 and 100 planes are expected to be produced over the next decade. But three important questions must be answered before Congress approves significant funds for the program.

First, what will the bombers actually cost? The Air Force claims it can build 100 for no more than $564 million each. But even if that were true, the price tag does not include the development costs, estimated to exceed $20 billion.

US Air Force handout photo of Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II fighter jet

Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter flies toward its home at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, January 11, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sergeant Joely Santiago/Handout

The projected costs are also in 2010 dollars — not the actual amount taxpayers must fork over in 2017, when the planes begin to roll off the assembly line. In addition, the 2010 price assumes that there will be no cost overruns or delays — though the F-35 joint strike fighter’s projected costs nearly doubled over the past 20 years it has been in development.

In April, the Government Accountability Office warned that the F-35’s severe, continuing technical problems and escalating costs jeopardize the program’s affordability. Total costs of the F-35 fighter are now expected to exceed $1.3 trillion — roughly $400 billion each to buy the planes and another $900 billion to maintain them over their lifespan. After the spiraling cost estimates of the F-35, Congress should be skeptical of the Air Force’s estimate of the cost of the new bomber.

Second, can the Defense Department really afford this new bomber, given that it is simultaneously modernizing the other two legs of its nuclear triad: the submarine-launched and land-based ballistic missiles? At the same time, the Pentagon is confronting threats from radical groups like Islamic State, dealing with escalating personnel costs and facing more than $400 billion in cost overruns on weapons now being developed and produced.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor is launched in a successful test, undated photo. REUTERS/U.S. Defense Department, Missile Defense Agency/Handout

The Pentagon’s estimated costs for modernizing all three legs of the triad will be approximately $350 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and at least $1 trillion over the next three decades. The Navy has already made it clear to Congress and to Defense Secretary Ash Carter that it cannot build its new ballistic-missile submarines within its proposed budgets unless it stops buying aircraft carriers and attack submarines for the next decade.

Third, does the program really enhance U.S. national security? For the new bombers, which will be part of the nuclear fleet, the Air Force plans to buy at least 1,000 new long-range standoff cruise missiles, which are nuclear capable and which will cost at least another $20 billion.

Yet as former Defense Secretary William Perry, who developed the nuclear cruise missile during the Carter administration, stated, this is not only unnecessary but destabilizing because adversaries will not know if the cruise missile on a new bomber is nuclear or conventional. This uncertainty could lead to a nuclear retaliation to a conventional attack – a nightmare scenario. Moreover, U.S. allies or potential opponents could interpret the development of a modern cruise missile as a new nuclear weapon capability. They could well assume that Washington is not serious about deterrence and will act accordingly.

Not surprisingly the prospective development of this missile makes many U.S. allies, including Britain, Japan and South Korea, uneasy. Not to mention its unsettling effects on Washington’s nuclear rivals China and Russia, which may pursue nuclear cruise missile capabilities of their own. Congress needs to re-think how these bombers will enhance U.S. nuclear deterrence before committing to such a costly program.

A B-2 Stealth Bomber at the 126th Rose Parade in Pasadena, California January 1, 2015. REUTERS/David McNew

A B-2 Stealth Bomber at the 126th Rose Parade in Pasadena, California January 1, 2015. REUTERS/David McNew

Until these questions are answered, Congress and the administration need to delay moving forward with the new bomber program. In addition, the runner-up Boeing-Lockheed team could still file a protest, potentially delaying the program. The Boeing-Lockheed team has already asked for more information about how the Air Force evaluated the price and risk in deciding who would win the contract.

Given the fleet threats the United States now faces, its current fiscal situation and the fact that the current strategic bomber, the B-52, will not retire for another 25 years — and the stealth B-2 not for another 40 years — there is really no need to rush.

12 comments

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What a waste of money and resources. The Americans should be thinking about spending this amount of money on the public service and the provision of free health and education to the public. After debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq(and now in Syria), Americans still think they are the super power and they can hold their own against any adversary. How tragically anachronistic.

Posted by alinayyar | Report as abusive

Can someone tell me why we are still purchasing expensive planes when drone can be manufactured for much less and there is no need to risk a pilots life? Seems like the generals are still fighting the last war

Posted by Ashdodi | Report as abusive

During the war on Yugoslavia all that B-2 bombers did was fired cruse missiles 1000 kilometers from the target which could be done from one of those self made boats the Cubans are using to reach US.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

This is the aircraft that the USAF needs to acquire. Not for nuclear deterrence, but for conventional deterrence of an aggressive China. Short range tactical fighters that make up the bulk of USAF conventional striking power – like the forthcoming F-35 – are useless in a theater that lacks resilient basing options. The USAF needs to wean itself from the expensive notion that all its assets need to be nuclear-capable.

Posted by maus92 | Report as abusive

The US Air Force has at most 15 operational B-2 bombers and the other bombers are ages old and inadequate for future operations. Therefore the number of bombers needs to be increased.

Of course, the surface-to-surface cruise missiles can do the job, but these missiles still need a platform (expensive submarine or exposed destroyer) and the surface-to-surface missiles are more expensive than air-to-surface missiles and they are not as stealthy and fast as air-to-surface missiles.

The bombers will fly unnoticed and they will make good use of aerial refueling aircraft flown from the multiple American overseas air bases.

Posted by teocopos | Report as abusive

$564 million per plane sounds pretty good considering that national defense is the core function of the national government. Heck, the State of New York alone spends about twice that amount on Medicaid – every week.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

Ashdoi: The system of weapons production is about money collected from tax payers and distributed to corporations with good lobbyists. Our military is a business, not a defense.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

WITH A COUNTRY WHO HAS DEBT OF OVER 18 TRILLION DOLLARS THE LAST THING WE NEED IS ANOTHER HYPER EXPENSIVE WEAPONS SYSTEM WHICH IS NOT NECESSARY AND
WILL UNDOUBTLY COST MORE THEN ORIGINALLY SPECIFIED.

Posted by wbalogh | Report as abusive

This is a good plane, b2s are too expensive and difficult to maintain and a new strategic nuclear delivery bomber is needed to counter growing Russian and Chinese threats.

You need nuclear bombers, because unlike BMs, you can recall them while they are on route (gives you time to get the enemy do back down and agree to your demands).

Posted by amd65 | Report as abusive

PEACE IS A LOT CHEAPER AND IF AT PEACE THE BUSINESS DEALS COMING OUT OF PEACE MAY ADD TO THE ECONOMY.

Posted by Lyn4U | Report as abusive

Does anyone figure the lost biz deals because of antagonisms of other countries if antagonist to the them?

Posted by Lyn4U | Report as abusive

It is amazing how the government just loves to spend money they do not have. Revenue means nothing to them. Just spend, spend, spend. You absolutely know that this new bomber is going to cost more than a trillion because the government does not know how to spend any less than that. Shucks the F 35 has already bankrupted the government. So now we are going for double bankrupt.

Posted by birder | Report as abusive