In April, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu sent a quiet ripple through the American national security community, when he proposed restarting production of the former Soviet Union’s most sophisticated Cold War bomber – the supersonic Tupolev Tu-160, or “Blackjack”.
To those who took notice in Washington DC, the announcement delivered at the Tu-160’s Kazan aircraft production plant was a clear signal from the Russian government that it will rely more heavily on its military muscle – conventional and nuclear – to meet foreign policy objectives going forward.
The signal could not have been clearer, coming just as the USA prepares to begin development of its own bomber: one advertised as a long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating weapon with unmatched technology in stealth, surveillance and communications.
“As one general told me, [Russian president Vladimir Putin] is a master at nuclear poker,” said the Air Force Association’s (AFA) Peter Huessy, a long-time nuclear policy analyst, when asked about the Tu-160 plan in an interview. “Unless we’re willing to get in the game, they’re going to call our bluff all the time.”
And whether the USA will get in the game is exactly the question many in Washington, and among its allies around the globe, are asking as the country’s strategic and conventional bomber forces age out.
US allies in Europe and Asia might be understandably confused seeing their number one strategic defence partner flying 53-year-old Boeing B-52 bombers with vintage production engines that billow exhaust fumes, and carrying air-launched cruise missiles built in the 1980s.
The B-2 programme provides an historical example of the air force not always getting what it wants: 132 were requested, but it received just 21
“If you want to maintain our position as the world’s sole superpower, if we want to be able to execute the tenants of our nation’s security strategy, we need a new long-range strike aircraft,” says former three-star general David Deptula, now dean of the AFA’s Mitchell Institute. “We are operating geriatric aircraft that simply cannot accomplish the missions that our national security strategy calls for.”
Fortunately for the USA, development of a new bomber could start as early as this summer, with the selection of either Northrop Grumman or a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team to carry the project forward.
Both bidders have the know-how and the manufacturing capacity to support such a large and complex undertaking, which the Department of Defense expects will cost at least $55 billion, not including development, for the production of between 80 and 100 aircraft.
But pushing the programme over a looming fiscal hump between 2022 and 2025, when activity would peak, would be the more herculean task for the winning aircraft manufacturer. This is because defence spending in the USA is currently capped by law, meaning the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) programme, as the next-generation bomber project is known, will continually be at risk of cancellation or cuts as it competes for limited resources against other “critical” military aircraft programmes like the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker and the next-generation trainer, or T-X. The US Navy also needs more than $100 billion over the same period, to replace its ageing Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
Although the air force hopes to build at least 80 of the heavy bombers at $550 million apiece in 2010 dollars, history has many examples of programmes that failed to make it over the fiscal hump and were terminated.
The USAF wanted 132 Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, but got just 21, including one test aircraft. It wanted 381 Lockheed F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters, yet production was halted at 195. Today, it wants 1,763 F-35As, although the fifth-generation fighter’s $100 million per-unit price tag has observers wondering if that planned quantity is actually achievable.
Speaking at a recent AFA event, air force acquisition executive Dr William LaPlante said that whether the service reaches its planned bomber procurement number will not be up to him. That is because the bomber’s funding requirement will peak at about $9 billion in fiscal year 2022, before receding to $7.5 billion in FY2025, according to the DoD’s top acquisition official, Frank Kendall.
“It’s really going to be up to future leaders,” LaPlante says. “All we can do is set the programme up. But it’s absolutely true that historically we don’t buy as many airplanes and ships as we say. Sometimes we buy more, like [Lockheed] F-16s. It goes either way.”
Both industry teams vying for the LRS-B contract know first-hand the pain of cut quantities.
Lockheed and Boeing partnered to build the F-22, which the companies claim was a successful venture, despite cost overruns and programme delays that were eventually the Raptor’s undoing.
Flare for it: the air force's B-1B fleet is 28 years old, and should stay in service until 2040
US Air Force
Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the F-22 in 2009, and the last aircraft rolled off the production line in late 2011. The supercruise-capable jet made its combat debut late last year in Syria, and the fleet is currently flying routine missions in the Middle East, while also supporting the homeland defence mission.
Northrop designed and built the B-2, the world’s first true stealth aircraft. But support in Washington faded because of cost overruns and its ties to the nuclear mission at the end of the Cold War. Production ceased just as it was scaling up, resulting in a cost per aircraft of $1.7 billion in today’s dollars.
“Well worth it,” says Maj Gen Garrett Harencak, air force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “Whatever cost you come up with, and there are wild numbers out there, the B-2 has been a bargain for America – trust me.”
Whichever team wins the bomber contract, they will have to work doubly hard to keep the programme on track to ensure continued support from Congress, the administration and the Pentagon.
But how do you sell a multi-billion-dollar 'ghost'? The programme is highly classified, and only a select group of officials actually know what is being purchased. In fact, the only unclassified line in the bomber’s budget sheet is its cost. The USAF has asked Congress for $14 billion to support the activity through 2020, according to the programme’s latest five-year spending plan.
“Any time there’s a programme that requires a significant degree of investment like this one will, there will be anti-bodies accumulating, because people will view it as a cash cow, particularly those who don’t understand the value it provides to the nation,” warns Deptula.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Clark Murdock, no other nuclear power spends as little on its nuclear force as a percentage of its defence budget as the USA. The DoD currently spends 4-5% of its $600 billion top line on strategic nuclear weapons, and even in the fiscal “bow wave” due to occur in the 2020s, the number will still be lower than Russia’s and China’s, at 8-9% of the total defence budget. Their annual defence budgets are much smaller, however.
Murdock says the USA must spend more on its strategic nuclear force, to include delivery of the bomber. But with the defence budget arbitrarily capped by law, each new programme must jostle for space.
“Everybody’s trying to sneak their nose into the tent,” he says. “In this area where you’re cost-capped, you have to be much more disciplined about deciding what’s really important, and what’s less important. Identify your must-have capabilities and adequately fund them.”
The house and senate armed services committees intend to trim the FY2016 request by $460 million to $786 million, to account for a four-month contract award delay, which has left the programme front-loaded with surplus cash.
Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed are staying tight-lipped about the competition, only issuing general statements highlighting past achievements. There is very little, if any, concrete information about the companies' competing design proposals.
Boeing is confident its defence business will secure either the bomber project or the next-generation T-X trainer, and its selection late last year to deliver the next presidential aircraft should soften any blow.
“We are optimistic also about our prospects this year for winning the long-range strike bomber programme,” Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney said at an investors’ conference in May.
Some analysts have suggested Boeing might move to acquire Northrop to beef up its defence business, if it loses the bomber competition.
“Would there be some big acquisition? Probably not,” McNerney says. “We’d regroup and regrow organically, but I think chances are we’re going to win one of those programmes.”
Winning the bomber competition is a much bigger deal for Northrop, but its chief executive, Wes Bush, told investors recently that he is not betting the company on it.
Northrop is leaning heavily on its expertise in stealth technology to make its case, having delivered the B-2. It is also pushing hard to win T-X and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalisation.
LaPlante says the air force and the higher office of the secretary of defence try to set the conditions for a vibrant and competitive military industrial base, and it is a major consideration when awarding any large contract. But he warns that the government cannot control how those companies behave.
“They have their own investors, they have stocks, they have their CEOs who make decisions,” he says. “All we can do is make sure we don’t inadvertently push someone completely out of the market. So we watch it, but it’s a much bigger issue than any one programme.
“You have to look at the foreign military sales situation, you have to look at the classified work. What you don’t do, because it would be wrong, is sit there at the eleventh hour going into a source selection and say, ‘oh, we have industrial issues’. It’s all deliberate and set up.”
The LRS-B programme currently has strong support within the congressional defence committees, but still needs majority support among 435 representatives and 100 senators. That support wanes among those ideologically opposed to nuclear weapons.
The nuclear link helped kill the B-2, says Huessy, and the new bomber has also become a target for arms control advocates, particularly as the air force whittles its nuclear-capable bomber force down to 60 B-52s and B-2s to comply with New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty limits agreed with Russia.
Cost overruns hit the B-2 programme
US Air Force
Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association suggests in a report the that air force could avoid about $32 billion in expenses over the next 10 years by delaying the bomber programme until 2025 and allowing the legacy fleet to cover the nuclear deterrence mission in the interim.
Harencak is opposed to any attempt to defund or delay delivery of the next-generation bomber, saying the air force needs it, regardless of whether it carries nuclear weapons.
“If nuclear weapons, and I hope it happens, go away next year, guess what? We’re still building a long-range strike bomber,” he says. “The essence of the US Air Force is to hold at risk any target anywhere in the world. There is no sanctuary for anybody who might think they could threaten us or cause us or our friends harm and believe that they have an integrated air defence capable of stopping us.”
Harencak says the current fleet, although still effective, is terribly old and that he hopes the air force won’t ever need to rely on a 100-year-old B-52.
The average age of the current B-52H fleet is 53. The Boeing B-1B fleet is 28 years old, and the B-2 is the youngest fleet at 20. The air force currently plans to keep the B-52 and B-1 in service until 2040. The B-2 should remain in the inventory until 2058.
“You don’t want to be the person to walk into the Oval Office sometime in the near future and say, ‘Mister President or Madam President, I am so sorry but we cannot neutralise that threat to America because we made the very bad decision not to invest in long-range strike capabilities’,” Harencak says. “We must have a long-range strike bomber.”
Huessy says nuclear-capable heavy bombers continue to be the most flexible leg of the nuclear force, because they are a long-range, visible deterrent – perfect for military posturing and reassuring allies. In 2013, for instance, a B-2 flew from Whiteman AFB in Missouri to Seoul in South Korea for a planned training exercise, and as a warning to North Korea.
Along with delivery of the new bomber, the USAF needs to develop a follow-on to the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which entered service in the 1980s with an anticipated service life of 10 years. The service says the ALCM is becoming less reliable and harder to maintain due to the natural ageing of components, and that a replacement needs to be fielded as soon as possible. The air force wants conventional high-explosive and nuclear-tipped variants.
“We must get it replaced because the ALCM provides enormous flexibility and assurance to our allies, and to us,” Harencak says. “It provides the global strike and no sanctuary, and it’s a long-range penetrating weapon.”
The cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff weapon, or LRSO, had been delayed by three years due to cost concerns, but the decision was reversed in the air force’s latest budget request. The US National Nuclear Security Administration is responsible for delivering the cruise missile’s W80-1 nuclear warhead, with delivery of the first all-up-round due in 2025.
The programme will be expensive. Almost $1.9 billion has been programmed into the budget through FY2020 to begin development. Spending levels are to peak at $650 million in FY2019.