The biggest question facing the Air Force when it comes to contracting for its next-generation long-range bomber is not meeting an award date set and then changed in recent months by its civilian leadership.
And it’s not who will get the long-awaited contract – Northrup-Grumman or a team made up of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, says Peter W. Singer, a defense strategist and senior fellow at New America.
“The core question is do we keep the contract to time and do we get a sufficient number [of aircraft] so that it is of value to the nation and the unit cost is reasonable,” Singer told Military.com. He said he supports the program, saying it is needed because of the “rising threat” of potential adversaries such as China and because the plane would replace the aging B-2 – “not just a multi-years old aircraft, but multi-decades.”
If the U.S. is to get the most out of its next-generation bomber – in terms of national security and cost – it has to keep to what contract schedule is and the number. Currently the Air Force is in the market for 80 to 100 new bombers, projecting an average unit cost of $550 million.
According to Singer, one need only look at the Air Force’s experience with the B-2 Spirit to see how quickly fleet sizes can shrink, sending per-unit costs skyward.
“You want the success story of the B-2 [as a weapons system] but avoid the problems of the B-2 acquisitions and development,” he said.
The Air Force initially planned a 132-plane Spirit fleet, but ultimately produced 21. The cost estimate was based on one number, but then you end up with a different number, he said. By 1996 the per unit cost reached $2.1 billion, and the General Accountability Office had no problem concluding that the B-2 was “most expensive bomber to operate and sustain on a per aircraft basis, costing over three times as much as the B-1B and over four times as much as the B-52H.”
Since its first combat mission during the Kosovo War in 1999 the B-2 has carried out successful operations over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
But the Air Force needs to avoid a repeat of the B-2 acquisitions experience, he said.
“If we end up with 20 or less of them, that’s not just a loss to the company [that expecting to build a large fleet], but to the nation, and that’s my concern,” Singer said.
Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.