Can the Air Force Afford the New Bomber?

If the Pentagon holds to its current plans to chop hundreds billions of dollars from defense spending over the next decade the U.S. Air Force may need to rethink it’s acquisition plans according to Todd Harrison defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential DC think tank.

The Defense Department is looking to shave hundreds of billions of dollars from its budgets over the coming 10-12 years; this means that all branches of the military will see pain and the Pentagon will probably have to make some tough choices in what strategic areas it wants to invest in and where to cut funding, argues Harrison.

These choices will likely mean that high-end weapons do well at the expense of things like MRAPs that are needed for COIN operations, argues Harrison.

However, the Air Force will have too many major programs under production in the 2020s to avoid cuts to its high-end weapons buys. By the early 2020s the Air Force will still be buying plenty of F-35 Lighning II Joint Strike Fighters and the KC-46A tanker will also be rolling off the assembly lines. These two expensive programs are to be joined by the services new bomber; of which the Air Force plans on buying around 100.

Here’s what Harrison said this morning on the subject at a press conference to discuss the Pentagon’s budget:

If you look at the Air Force’s projection for aircraft procurements, you see several big programs that are all, in theory, going to be in full-rate production at the same time in the 2020s. The tanker will be in full-rate production, the bomber will be ramping up to full-rate production and the JSF will still be in full-rate production. I don’t see how the Air Force can handle, budget-wise, all of those programs being at full-rate production at the same time even at current projections — even if the budget’s not cut, even if it’s allowed to grow, I don’t see how they can handle all three of those programs at the same time.

If we have substantial cuts in defense spending by 2020 then I think it is nearly impossible, unless we’re willing to make major sacrifices in other parts of the procurement budget.

So, with the F-35 and KC-46 already on contract that leaves the bomber as the odd man out. Outgoing vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. James Cartwright is already pushing for a scaled down version of the fancy but supposedly cost-effective bomber (if not scrapping it entirely). Who knows what the next crop of Pentagon leaders will think of the recently revived program as they make budget choices in the coming years.

  • Jason

    I dont want to sound like a d**k, but how hard is it to put 1.2 Billion on the USAF Budget? Lets say $600 Million a pop, and you by 2 a year until you reach 100, how hard could that be? Yes, I know that is a lot of money, but when you have a $550 Billion Base Budget, $1.2 Billion is a tiny piece of the budget. I honestly thing this is military spin, and they WILL be build. Just like the USN will have 11 CSG, even with all of the “ground noise” over the past week. Smoke-and-Mirrors.

    • brianckramer

      The problem is it will start out $600 Million, end up costing 1.5 Billion, only end up with 20 in service, then be retired before being used in combat.

      Not to mention in 10-20 years, pilots will be obsolete and UAV will be the standard.

    • RandFan1776

      So, if it took ten years to develop the aircraft (and let’s be honest, based on recent aircraft development projects, that’s an almost absurdly optimistic projection), we would then, at two aircraft per year, be buying the last aircraft 50 years after production began. And 60 + years after Development. If we had followed a plan like that in the past, we would just now be buying the last F-4’s and F-105’s. Fine aircraft to be sure, but a little past their time.

      • joe

        But not altogether innaccurate considering the B-52.

      • ChuckL

        Another comparison would show that the F-4E can out run and out maneuver the F-35 and it carries more air to air missiles to boot. Under visual identification rules the F-4E just might be the better choice. The only advantage that the F-35 has is in the missiles themselves, but those could be fitted to the F-4 giving it the advantage.

        If we have to ramp up production again, it better be the F-22. at least it has a good chance to win.

    • IKnowIT

      Pretty f-ing hard when you are broke. All the other crap, and programs, should be cut as well (inlcuding outside the military).

  • Forrest Cantrell

    No. They can’t.

  • superraptor

    well, when the PLA rolls out their first B-2 sized stealth bomber which probably will happen soon, Tea Party Republicans may see that the defense budget will have to be increased even if it means to allow substantial coldwar-level tax increases to go forward

  • brian

    I think the question should be, does the US government think the security of the nation is worth paying for a new bomber?

  • Jeremy

    IMO, the bomber is a necessity. Countries like China will continue to build systems to deny access by America. It is extremely important to have the capability to penetrate advanced defense networks from long ranges. Since it is unlikely we’ll be in another major counterinsurgency campaign after the Afghan war, I’m okay with cutting back on counterinsurgency equipment. We’ve got to invest more into long range strike systems, so it would be a bad idea to cut out the bomber.

  • Josh

    It isn’t a question of need… of course we need the new bomber (unless we’re going to pretend that heavy bombers haven’t been a deciding factor in the last 70 years of warfare). The main issue is if Congress is going to act to get control of this insane procurement process we’ve let ourselves get sucked into. (Again, the answer is probably no. Not as long as the lobbyists and their money are allowed to stay in DC) The USAF has gotten itself into a situation where it’s flying aircraft that are FAR beyond their service life and now there’s no money to replace them.

  • chaos0xomega

    I don’t understand why we don’t just restart production on things like the B-1/B-2. Most of the R&D costs are already sunk, maybe invest a few billion more to update some of the systems for new-build versions, and restart the production line. We can have new bombers in service ‘tomorrow’ rather than ‘next year’ , without serious additional investment into new R&D, etc.

    Lets be honest, is the latest stealth tech that big of an improvement on the ‘legacy’ stealth of the B-2? Are we that positive that we can maintain a stealth advantage and all its associated costs in the face of advancing radar technology that would make low-rcs obsolete?

    • anon

      Probably because politicians like to demand that when they cut a program, all the jigs, tooling etc are melted down for scrap so that their opponents cannot campaign against them on a platform of restarting production.

      Look at what happened to the Avro CF-105 Arrow

    • citanon

      1. B-2’s stealth technology and the legacy subcomponents are very expensive to maintain. A new fleet of B-2s will not be affordable without extensive integration of coatings, avionics, engines, and production techniques from the F-35 generation of aircraft. At that point, you might as well design a new bomber, which is what the Air Force wants to do.

      2. Radar technology is advancing, but so is stealth technology. Since the days when the B-2 was designed there has probably been orders of magnitude reduction in the RCS of new designs. The newer designs probably also carry improved signature management across a wider swath of the EM spectrum, and may integrate new signature management concepts.

      • ChuckL

        The B-2 and the F-22 are in a near tie, followed by the now defunct F-117 and trailed by a large bit by the F-35.

        You can find most of this on the AirPowerAustralia web site. Don’t forget the design parameters. The F-22 was to be the Air Superiority Fighter replacing the F-15. Speed, maneuverability, and stealth were paramount. The F-35 was to be the “bomb truck” replacing the F-16. It wasn’t to be used until the F-22 had cleared the battle space of dangers.

      • blight

        The B-2’s outer coatings and composite materials are of an older generation compared to the new stuff. A coating upgrade is likely to cost kajillions of dollars. Reviving a old program means systems integration of new off-the-shelf with what is already in the aircraft itself, an onerous process.

    • ChuckL

      Only the B-2 and the F-22 are capable of survival in a heavily defended air space using a networked radar system. Because of its smaller size the F-117 is susceptible to low frequency or long wave radar.

      The F-23 prototypes were supposedly even stealthier than the F-22 and just a tad faster, and Northrup was supposed to have also proposed a medium bomber version. That might be worth another look. Incorporating the most recent developments in coatings should be no problem and would have the advantage that they are already in use. As the F-22 and F-23 engines were the same, it would also provide spare engines for the F-22.

      Fortunately the Air Force has paid to have all of the F-22 tooling kept in usable condition.

      • Gerald Hartley

        I think you’ll find that the B-2 and the Yf-23 tooling has been kept in usable condition also.

  • IKnowIT

    Can we afford it? Nope. We can’t afford most anything else either. People need to get used to the idea of cutting EVERYTHING, whether we personally agree with it or not.

  • dan

    Spending money on a new bomber is foolish. What we need to do is get our fiscal house in order.
    If that means putting off some programs then we need to do that.
    Besides cruise missiles can do the job as well as a bomber and a whole lot cheaper.

    • blight

      This echoes of Douhet’s thesis that bombers would replace armies fighting and dying in the fields, since they were cheap and could strike enemy cities directly.

      Did they?

      • anon

        In about the same way that cheap, deadly surface-to-air missiles replaced expensive, unreliable fighter aircraft in air defence

        • blight

          They also replaced lots of 20 and 40mm cannon. Bofors and Oerlikon were not pleased…

    • Iman Azol

      Cruise missiles are half a million a pop, and you only use each one once. A JDAM costs about $50,000. An aircraft can deliver thousands of them in a few hundred sorties.

      Not to mention they already stopped building cruise missiles, so your logic fails there, too.

      However, feel free to propose your brilliance to the JCS. I’m sure they’ll give it the attention it deserves.

  • darksidius

    Air force must invest in new long range strike system, its vital. Because we are at the beginning of a gigantic tsunami on the world, with the problem of money in the world and maybe a futur war. The country who invest in new technology will be the winner of the world of tomorrow. Stop to say spending dollars is a problem tomorrow this new bomber will save your life. If we refuse to spend money on high tech weapon, nobody will be in security, because country like Iran, North korea or China can possess weapon who stop current airplane and attack will be impossible and after that the world will be everywhere insecure.

  • If all they wanted was a re-warmed B2, incorporating technology developed for other programmes, then it probably would be affordable.
    But the US really can’t help itself when it comes to spending money. They’ll leap on every opportunity to make this more expensive than it need be.

  • If all they wanted was a re-warmed B2, incorporating technology developed for other programmes, then it probably would be affordable.

    But the US really can’t help itself when it comes to spending money. They’ll leap on every opportunity to make this more expensive than it need be.

  • J Hughes

    Does the AF need 500 Minuteman ballistic missiles and thousands of nuclear bombs when our SSBNs are by far the best most destructive deterrent?

  • Vitor

    How can the armed forces of a country with ever-growing debt whose currently is over 14 trillions can afford some giant project?

    • citanon

      Simple. Because we make $12 trillion dollars a year.

      • Vitor

        I see you are really naive about how GDP is calculated.

    • ChuckL

      Eliminate the politically kept but useless projects and restrict the federal government to what it was designed to do. That is national defense and only what the states can not do for themselves.

  • Lance

    We need to scrape these worthless programs like another B-2ish bomber or that dumb ICC competition both are worthless and not needed. We need to upgrade the B-2 and B-52 again. That will push both planes into the 2030-40s before wearing out.

    • anon

      As the old AF joke goes, when the last of the B1 and B2s are flown to the bone yard, they’ll be flown home in a B52

    • Bob

      I am 75. When I was still in high school, one of the first three B-52s built in Seattle, crashed. I eventually accumulated over 4, 000 hours in B-52Bs and B-52Gs. Lance, even with major retrofitting, you can only beat a dead horse so many times. Time is long past being “up” for B-52s and B-2s have been whipped so many times it, too, is long passed dying. Metal fatigue is a sure way to kill our crew members before they can fly in defense of our country.

  • bigRick

    how many bombers does it take to drop a bomb? hundreds

    how many fighters does it take to go zoom zoom? hundreds

    how many golf courses does the air force need? hundreds

    how many times does the air force support the troops on the ground without whining and bitching? none

    • ChuckL

      and how many unknowledgeable “bigricks” do we need?

      My vote is one less

    • Josh

      Hmm… that’s not the way I remember it. But, of course I was actually there…

    • Bob

      Damn few times did I whine. Even though I came home with severe damage to our F-4, my worst experience involved supporting ground troops in contact.. The VC was on their MPC trying to get inside. We spilled portions of our Naps too near the MPC and thought we were killing our men inside. Their yelling was to come in about 20 meters closer to burn the guys on top of the MPC. My story is not unusual, so stop your whining and disrupting of a solid brotherhood, regardless of which service you criticize. When we as a nation stand together and quit bickering, nothing can stop us. We are all in this together; sink together or swim together.

  • jamesb

    The Air Force could always give the C-27J back to the Army along with Liberty program and the CV-22 program……

    He, he, he…..Good for the AF dog robbers…..
    If they want to be the fast mover service why not give the C-5, C-17’s to the Army also?

    • Josh

      You mean the C-27J that the Air Force developed with L-3 that the Army insisted they be allowed to buy?

  • J Hughes

    Cut the number of F-35s and nuclear bombs (Obama’s idea).

  • Dfens

    Build a new tactical cargo hauler with a reduced or low radar signature instead. The cargo plane can be used to insert and supply special forces troops without telling the world where they’re hiding, it can refuel stealth aircraft in theater instead of off at a safe distance, and it could be used to drop bombs too. Really, that’s just scratching the surface of what such an airplane could do. It would be a great anti-submarine platform, great for command and control, perfect for ground attack (a great AC-130 replacement), surveillance, the list goes on. We’d get a hell of a lot more bang for our buck out of a tactical airlifter than any other type of aircraft we could build. Plus airlifters aren’t so sexy that they USAF is willing to sell its soul to buy one. Well, they came close to that with the C-17, but “Precious” (the F-22) made that program look like the War of the Roses. Plus a tactical airlifter would be smaller than C-17, somewhere between the C-130 and A400M.

  • William C.

    Hmm… Order twice the amount we want because we can always to expect congress to cut half?

    • Dfens

      Order as many as you want. The more you order, the more production budget the program will have to convert into development budget when they start dragging it out. That’s all the C-130E modifications were in the contract for in the C-130 AMP program. The E’s were already at the end of their life. Everyone knew that. But they put them in the budget to be modified to cover the inevitable development cost overruns. Any country stupid enough to pay the same percentage profit on development and production deserves not to have any airplanes or ships.

  • J Hughes

    You would need like 20 F-35s to equal the amount of firepower that just 1 NGB could bring to the battlefield. Thats 20 human lives, 20 planes to need to be paid for, crews for 20 planes. So you take all that into account and ad the fact that the NGB could possibly be unmanned… Little strike fighters dont win air wars, bombers and air superiority fighters do.

    • You sound like Curtis LeMay. AIR resources do not win wars, ground occupation does.
      Fighters keep air superiority, and protect the ground forces. THAT is the main battlefield job. Bombers are designated “precision heavy attack” at strategic and tactical targets. Fighters are supposed to be Air -to-air, but the trend at least from the 1980s has been to multi-role with ground support, CAS, and TopCap.

      Theater Nuclear weapons are a interesting subject of TREATIES, but are not effective in winning a war on the ground. They are not likely to be used in a regional war.

      The military has made the proper chice in that smaller munitions delivered with precision can do a very effective job, minimizing collateral damages. (Blowing things up always as some undesired local effects.)

      Weapons of mass destruction are basically obsolete on the battlefield. (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical, except harrassing agents)

      • J Hughes

        So they Army is prepared to buy thousands and thousands of ATACMS to replace the all bombers?!

      • Maxtrue

        Well bombers are designated for precision heavy attack. The environment they will fight future wars is becoming harsher to say the least. Twenty years out they had better provide protection from DEW and hypersonic weapons. The point of building a new bomber is that future weapons such as advanced EPW, DEW weapons and missile defense weapons ( a new task) will require superior range, ceiling, lift, stealth and electronics. Smaller munitions will not penetrate Fordo, nor will DEW and their power plants fit inside today’s fighter bombers. Clearly, we will need a new bomber, but the question is what weapons will it carry, what materials and technology are available (or not available for some time) as well as our adversary’s projected counter-measures.

        As far as the Gang of Six, $800 billion in reductions over 10 years is probably equal to today’s waste and fraud. It would be crazy not to start the design R & D on a new bomber, but it would crazy to build one that becomes obsolete by the time it flies. Last, depending on the weapons used for attack, more than one design makes sense. One would want a fuel-efficient high altitude steal bomber for EPW and hypersonics. One would need a faster more shielded bomber for ground support strikes in a battle environment.

        No one wants an LSC fiasco, but then on one wants Fordo to continue with impunity. Right now however, a mini-reactor required to power our proof of concept weapons is more important than a new bomber that is only a step ahead of the ones we have.

  • mpower6428

    the airforce should be absorbed BACK into the army, ICBM’s and all. as the marines to the navy.

    i mean sure…. the uniforms are cool and all but the amount of expenditure to justify its existence is pointless. Gulf War 1 is a perfect example.

  • Martin Combs

    My question is how would this new bomber fit into the Mission? We are flying 3 different systems..We have the B 52 and the B1.. Could the B 1 mission cover that of the BUFF? It was supposed to in the beginning..Next, what is the flight life of the B2? Can it be extended? And, will the new Bomber bring a new level of capability that will be more comprehensive? Look at the F117.. It did so much with so this what the new bomber will do? These are the q’s that will determine if a new bomber is worth the investment..Do we know these answers?

  • Joe

    The Russians can’t find a B-2, and the Chinese can’t even shoot down a B-1, so who needs another bomber.

    • J Hughes

      They cant yet… Why even give them a chance in 10 years?

  • vince donadio

    we are at the start of yet another point wear money wise a long hard look at what is truly needed over what is wanted

  • David

    Frankly, we don’t need a new bomber when we have bombers that work now and two other components of the TRIAD that can more than pick up the slack and do it more effectively and cheaper. And we CERTAINLY don’t need to put more money into bells and whostles when we talk about reducing benefits and pay for the PEOPLE who operate those same bells and whistles. We can afford cuts…and a new bomber is the perfect place to start.

  • America needs new bombers, fighters and pilots. Why? Because of the upcoming challenges that face the next generation. If America cannot defend her skies and take the lead to the enemy then America will be overtaken and conquered. Do not settle for a robotic defence force.

  • Tom

    There is NO need for a new manned bomber or frankly for new manned fighters. These things are expensive dinosaurs. Cruise missiles and unmanned planes can do the same job, only better, cheaper and without the loss of American lives.

    • Iman Azol

      Tom: until some North Korean 16 year old computer nerd hacks your precious remote controlled planes.

      That this isn’t an obvious threat to most people says many things about our educational system.

  • Franklin

    Nothing could be more stupid than building another manned penetrating bomber. A multi tasked heavy cargo stealth platform built using the Boeing blended wing body design could fill many roles such as Cargo, passenger, bomber, and tanker. It would have extreme range and not just sit somewhere doing nothing most of the time. This is a way to really save money, and increase tasking. We don’t need a dedicated aircraft that will just be a money pit.

  • bigRick

    The air force can see the writing on the wall-that there future is dim.

    So their strategy is to say “we need a new bomber” while everyone with any military sense know otherwise

    The days of manned bombers and fighter is nearing it’s end, it’ll take another 20 years but the “pilot” will be a thing of the past rest assured.

    The bomber based leg (and the land base legs) of the TRIAD and absolutely useless and a huge waste of money, the only thing the bad guys (with nukes) fear are our SSBNs

    Because of these two facts the air force is feeling mighty insecure right now so they are desperately looking for ways to add to their self importance-hence the cry for a “new” bomber

    • Iman Azol


      As others who’ve actually thought about this have commented, remote vehicles are great if you you have total C3 control. IF the enemy gets the upper hand, one quarter of your fleet fratricides another quarter, while half turn on you.

      But, as I’ve suggested to others, feel free to express your brilliance to the JCS. I’m sure they’ll give it the attention it deserves.

  • oldmuddy

    The tea party jokers need to return to their bat caves. If we are going to return to the mentality of the 1950s and buy thousands of everything the pentagon wants, taxes HAVE to go up.

  • Billy

    What we need is Supermanuervable F-15s that can beat Russian Su’s and Mig’s. Use the F-22 Raptors in stock to take out Russian S-300’s, B-52’s pound enemy and we save millions of dollars! With all that money on R&D for stealth tech, we could be mass producing other stuff.

    • blight

      The Air Force is no longer in the business of mass production. The high cost of R&D for new aircraft is one part of it…

  • Here’s a novel idea! Why don’t we just save all the R&D costs and just let the Chinese develop something for a change? Then, we could just steal \ spy buy \ etc… the plans from them. Then we could put all our big money on productiion, and we’d still save a bundle!!! Hey, it works for the Chinese, the Russians, etc, etc, etc.!!!