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Why So Long for New Bomber?

The Pentagon said today it will take until the mid 202os to field a new fleet of 80 to 100 bombers built using existing technology. If the Air Force is not going to use dramatically improved  technologies, which usually take a decade or so to perfect, why will it take so long?

Well, it all comes down to money and making really fancy existing technology all work together, according to several experts.

Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia says: "Finding the resources to create a new airframe, or series of airframes, is tough given competing priorities [such as the F-35 and the Navy's SSBN (X) ballistic missile sub] and the overall budget environment."

"Technical maturation is also an issue," said Aboulafia who pointed out the amount of time it has taken to field the F-35 even though it has been in development since the mid-1990s. "Just because we have the building blocks today doesn’t mean that we can create the fortress overnight," said Aboulafia.

Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, who was a champion of the new bomber program before Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it on hold in 2009, added that the main challenge to fielding such a jet won't be developing the technology. The real challenge will be integrating it onto the jet. In other words, making sure  today's most high tech engines, avionics and sensors all work well together.

Perhaps most challenging will be hardening the plane for nuclear missions, "we haven't nuclear hardened an airplane in a while," said Wynne. All of this means that it will likely take until the middle of this decade to get a test plane flying, noted Wynne. This means it will take several more years of flight testing which means the first production variants will start to be built toward the end of the decade.

Most importantly, the Pentagon must stick to the idea to gradually improve the new bomber in a block or spiral manner, said the former secretary. Sticking to such plans "has been a little bit of an issue," said Wynne referring to the Air Force's move to cap the F-22 Raptor and B-2 bomber buys at numbers far lower than originally planned. If the Pentagon fails to stick with a plan to flied the plane in technology blocks, our next bomber will be based on technology that exists today rather than technology that gets developed in the coming years, he said.

But the Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson isn't convinced that building a new bomber using existing technologies (regardless of whether you're using a block approach) is the best idea.

"This is just the latest evidence that the Pentagon takes way too long to field new equipment," said Thompson. "If the technologies are mature today, they will be outdated by the time they reach the field using our baroque acquisition process." Perhaps that will make the Chinese happy?

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