Should the United States Buy the Long Range Strike Bomber? Yes
The United States is preparing to restart bomber production. The awarding of a contract this summer for the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) will end a 20-year production hiatus. While the Department of Defense has officially embraced the need to develop a new bomber for the past decade and has been actively pursuing LRS-B for five years, the award of the development contract represents a substantially higher level of commitment to new bomber production than at any time since shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The pressing question for the Department of Defense and Congress is whether the nation should buy LRS-B at all. They must consider whether LRS-B is cost-effective and affordable within likely budgets, unlike programs such as the Comanche helicopter and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle that were killed before entering production because they proved unaffordable.
While little has been made public about the LRS-B program, a few important details are known. It is expected to consist of 80-100 long-range aircraft with an average procurement unit cost of $550 million in 2010 dollars (or about $610 million per plane in today’s dollars). It is also expected to incorporate low observable technologies and be capable of both conventional and strategic (nuclear) missions. Combining these details with information about past acquisition programs is enough to make a preliminary assessment of LRS-B. The conclusion: A well-designed, well-executed LRS-B program would provide significant warfighting value and would be affordable within likely future budgets. The U.S. Air Force should proceed with the program, but Congress and the Department of Defense will need to reassess this question in three to four years to determine if the assumptions that underlay this decision remain valid.
The Value of the LRS-B’s Mission
Measuring the value of an individual weapon system is difficult because it requires significant judgments in putting a value to the mission it will perform and in assessing potential alternatives. This assessment is generally made within the Department of Defense acquisition system as part of the analysis of alternatives (AOA), which looks at all the practically achievable ways of performing the mission and identifies the approach that provides the needed capability at a reasonable cost. Though the LRS-B program is well past the AOA stage, the need for LRS-B continues to be challenged by commentators such as T.X. Hammes here at War on the Rocks. Such a debate is healthy and timely, as Congress will certainly have skeptical questions and the Department of Defense will need good answers.
The foundation for the need for LRS-B starts with its conventional mission and how it supports the American way of war that has evolved since at least the first Gulf War. This way of war has depended on the ability of U.S. forces to penetrate enemy air defenses to achieve one of two primary objectives. Objective one has been to suppress or destroy air defenses, thereby enabling continuous air support for U.S. ground and naval forces engaged in combat operations. Think of the role of the F-117 in the first Gulf War or how the B-2 has been used to kick down the door of enemy air defenses since its introduction to combat in 1999. Objective two has been to penetrate defended enemy airspace to identify or destroy individual high-value targets and strategic threats without directly attacking air defenses. Think of the decapitation strike designed to kill Saddam Hussein and other key Iraqi leaders on the first day of the second Gulf War. The ability to penetrate enemy air defenses is foundational to the successful prosecution of a modern combined arms campaign and also to the ability to attack with precision anywhere in the world. Hence, the value of the conventional missions that LRS-B will perform is high.
Additionally, any AOA must consider the LRS-B’s ability to perform nuclear deterrence missions. Since the conventional mission for LRS-B justifies acquiring the system, adding a nuclear capability to the system only makes the case for it stronger. It adds relatively little incremental cost and provides the U.S. military with significant operational flexibility in its strategic force structure.
Alternatives to LRS-B
The critics of LRS-B point out that there are alternatives for penetrating enemy airspace that merit consideration. Standoff weapons, such as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, can penetrate enemy air defenses, but it is not clear they are a cheaper alternative. There is a big debate about whether the cost of acquiring these systems, and the ships, aircraft, and fighter escorts required to launch them as part of a major air campaign, would ultimately prove cheaper than LRS-B. In addition, existing cruise missiles have range and payload limitations that undermine their effectiveness against advanced threats and have very limited capability to detect and attack mobile targets.
While the exact payload and range characteristics of LRS-B are not yet known, it will likely possess range consistent with existing bombers and a payload capacity that allows it to strike dozens of targets on a single mission. These characteristics would set the LRS-B apart from existing standoff weapons. Advanced air defense systems are increasingly mobile, essentially ruling out the ability for today’s cruise missiles to play the role that LRS-B is projected to play in future air campaigns. While some have questioned the ability for air platforms to attack mobile targets, the proof is in the current fight in Iraq and Syria, where the U.S. military successfully strikes mobile targets on a daily basis.
While the Pentagon could develop new advanced standoff weapons as an alternative to LRS-B, this would involve a robust development effort with new technologies. Expendable standoff weapons with increased range and the ability to loiter, detect, and destroy mobile targets are likely to be very expensive, even with favorable assumptions about new manufacturing techniques, due to the fact that each mission ends with the destruction of the weapon. If these weapons are made cheaper by employing submunitions and recovering the weapon for reuse, what would be the difference between this new standoff weapon and the LRS-B? Another possible alternative to LRS-B is a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles. Similar to standoff weapons, however, existing unmanned platforms cannot perform the full mission set intended for LRS-B, and the notional requirements for a new unmanned platform are hard to distinguish from the requirements for LRS-B, particularly if, as expected, the LRS-B is designed to operate mostly unmanned.
Issues That Could Reduce the Value of LRS-B
Another objection to LRS-B relates to potential increases in the ability of adversaries to detect stealth aircraft. If adversary capabilities advance sufficiently to allow for the targeting of stealth aircraft and effective countermeasures are not adopted, the value that LRS-B provides is substantially reduced. As the air defense threat increases, the threshold for attacking a mobile target in defended airspace could increase sufficiently that standoff weapons or small UAVs could handle the remaining high-value targets. This risk is real, but becomes less compelling when one considers how the U.S. military attacks enemy air defenses. The advanced geometries and coatings that constitute low observable technology today are only one aspect of attacking these systems. Other technologies are also employed to prevent enemy air defenses from successfully targeting U.S. platforms. Arguably, enemy technological advances in this area present as big a challenge to cruise missiles or small UAVs, as these systems have a limited payload in which to house the sensors and countermeasures required to stay ahead of advancing air defense threats.
Given the importance of the mission LRS-B is designed to perform and the low likelihood that alternative approaches would prove more cost-effective, the decision to select LRS-B over potential alternatives appears to be sound. While the B-2 bomber can be upgraded to provide similar capabilities, the small size and age of the B-2 fleet means that it cannot provide a complete alternative to LRS-B. Similarly, the F-22 fighter lacks the range and payload to fill the LRS-B mission in a major air campaign. The ability to prosecute an air campaign with multiple mobile targets in defended airspace from long ranges is the unique capability of the LRS-B, and the potential alternatives to LRS-B would likely ultimately cost more and would not provide the same ability to counter advancing air defense threats.
What Will LRS-B Really Cost?
Concluding that the LRS-B provides enough value to justify its acquisition only answers the first part of the question of whether the nation should buy it. The second part asks whether LRS-B is affordable in the context of likely future budgets. The planned average procurement unit cost of LRS-B will be $550 million in 2010 dollars. The comparable average procurement unit cost for the B-2 was $1.2 billion in 2010 dollars, but this was after the program was terminated at 21 airframes, about one-sixth of the planned purchase. A B-2 purchase of the quantities projected for LRS-B — which currently stand at somewhere between 80 and 100 — would have had a much lower average procurement unit cost. The next closest parallel, the B-1B Bomber, was purchased in quantities similar to LRS-B, and had an average procurement unit cost of $350 million adjusted to 2010 dollars. Is it realistic to believe that LRS-B’s production costs would come in between those of the B-1 and B-2? It is plausible.
Unlike either the B-1 or the B-2, the publicly stated requirements for LRS-B do not require the development of revolutionary new technologies. Building the B-2, with its complex geometry and use of newly developed composite materials, was groundbreaking. Achieving the necessary tight seams using the manufacturing processes available then was time consuming and inefficient. The B-2 program also experienced a major design change in midstream. Today, production of composite materials in complex shapes is routine and benefits from many of the same advantages of computer-controlled manufacturing that typify production of other systems. While the benefits of 3-D printing of metal and plastic parts are becoming more widely understood, less well known is the manufacturing capability currently in place to produce complex composite parts using computer-controlled 3-D weaving, injection, and coating. LRS-B will benefit from the substantial advances in production of composite materials made in the 20 years since the B-2 was produced. There are some indications that LRS-B could be a smaller airframe than the B-2. Production costs correlate strongly with aircraft weight, and if LRS-B is smaller than the B-2, some important elements of aircraft cost would be less. Taken together, the combination of buying higher quantities, using computer-controlled manufacturing techniques, and building a smaller airframe would add plausibility to the argument that LRS-B’s airframe costs could be between those of the B-1 and the B-2.
Much of the cost of any aircraft comes not from the aircraft structure itself, but from the electronics and other subsystems it carries. The department has stated that LRS-B will maximize the reuse of subsystems off of existing military platforms. Possible candidates for this approach include aircraft engines, radars, defensive systems, and payload handling systems. To the extent that these subsystems are able to leverage existing production — particularly volume production from the F-35 program — they may be able to substantially reduce costs compared to the B-2’s subsystems, nearly all of which except for the engine were built or redesigned specifically for the B-2. The reuse of existing subsystems is likely the key factor in determining whether the Department of Defense can keep LRS-B affordable.
The Air Force Can Afford LRS-B
Taking all these factors into consideration, what can be concluded about the likely cost of LRS-B and its affordability in the context of the Air Force’s budget? Accepting the department’s affordability target as the likely low end and the B-2’s costs as the likely high end, total acquisition costs for LRS-B would be expected to range from $74 billion to $150 billion in 2010 dollars (including a development cost range of $30-$40 billion). This suggests that the LRS-B program would be comparable in total acquisition cost to two 1990s acquisition programs: The C-17 airlifter program acquired 224 large transports at a total acquisition cost of $82 billion (adjusted to 2010 dollars) if the low end were achieved, and the DDG-51 destroyer program acquired more than 60 ships so far at a total acquisition cost of $118 billion (adjusted to 2010 dollars), if costs came in at the high end. Given that the Air Force has stated that LRS-B is one of its top three modernization priorities, it is not difficult to believe the Air Force can afford a C-17 sized investment in this capability. While the high-end cost estimate is roughly double the department’s cost target, an investment of that magnitude is not necessarily out of the scope of possibility in the defense budget, provided the Air Force were to place sufficient priority on the effort. Notably, both the C-17 and DDG-51 programs survived during the low defense budgets of the 1990s. In this sense, a well-designed, well-executed LRS-B program is affordable in the context of likely future defense budgets, provided it remains a top Air Force priority.
There are two main risks to this assessment of affordability. The first is that while any one of the Air Force’s top three priorities may be affordable on its own, they may not be affordable when considered together. By the second half of the next decade, the Air Force will likely be faced with a choice to either slow production rates on one or more of its big three acquisition priorities or to retire a number of legacy aircraft to create room for increased acquisition funding. The second big risk is if the threat outpaces the ability of LRS-B to adapt. In that case, the compelling mission need underlying LRS-B would collapse and the affordability case along with it. The affordability assessment does not change much if operating and sustainment (O&S) costs are included. O&S costs for LRS-B on a flying hour basis are likely to be lower than those for the B-2 provided the program executes to completion. This is true primarily because the LRS-B fleet is projected to be significantly bigger than the B-2 fleet. Very small aircraft fleets have high flying hour costs because there are so few flying hours compared to the fleet’s fixed sustainment costs. A big percentage of the O&S costs of the B-2 is driven by its very small fleet size rather than by its advanced materials.
LRS-B Done Well Is a Good Investment
At this point in time, large uncertainties remain in the LRS-B program that will ultimately determine its success or failure going forward. The aircraft design will be determined by the winner of the source selection, and the exact capabilities of the platform and the question of whether that design can meet the department’s affordability target will remain open for some time thereafter. Yet based on what is known today, the department’s decision to pursue LRS-B appears sound and the affordability target appears plausible. If the Department of Defense achieves its $550 million affordability target, there is every reason to believe that the Air Force can afford LRS-B. And it is plausible that the Air Force could choose to acquire LRS-B even if costs increase, as has occurred historically with similar programs. The department’s stated intention to reduce program cost by reusing existing subsystems and to ensure platform effectiveness by using an evolving open systems architecture design is likely to be critical to the program’s success or failure.
Andrew Hunter is Director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2011-2014 including as Director of the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell. He worked as a Professional Staff Member of the House Armed Services Committee from 2005-2011.