A US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber approaches a runway at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., following a long-range combat mission over Iraq. The Air Force is moving ahead on plans to field a new bomber in the mid-2020s. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — While last week’s US defense budget preview was dominated by news of what was being cut, one bright spot remains — the US Air Force’s long-range bomber program.
And it’s coming sooner than expected.
“We expect that there will be a full RFP [request for proposals], a final RFP and a competition probably in the fall time frame,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Feb. 26 event hosted by Bloomberg.
James also told the audience there are “two teams at present who are working on per-proposal types of activities, preparing to take the next step in competition on the long-range strike bomber.”
While not identifying the two teams, it has been widely assumed for months that the two competitors for the program are Northrop Grumman and a team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
A spokesman for Northrop declined to comment, but the company’s chief financial officer was quoted by media in November confirming Northrop’s involvement in the competition.
Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher, speaking on behalf of Boeing and Lockheed, said the two companies “aren’t in position to comment about the information that the Air Force provided this week,” but noted both “are looking forward to working with the Air Force on one of its top priorities.”
The bomber is a potentially huge boon for whoever wins it, and the fact that competition could begin this year — with a selection as soon as 2015 — will have an impact on markets, said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.
“It’s a big one,” Callan said. “You’ve now got a decision on it in 2015. That is going to be of keen interest to investors.”
The news came as something of a surprise, as the Air Force bomber program has been shrouded in mystery. James also promised more details would come out during the official budget rollout, something Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Research, said is a good thing. The budget will be unveiled March 4.
“I think this program is way over-mystified,” Grant said. “There should be a separation between protecting technology and design, and having the common sense about the program itself. Obviously, a lot about the system is and should remain classified, but the program itself doesn’t need to be classified.”
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, defended the secrecy around the program during a Feb. 21 media event.
Asked if he could reveal details on the person managing the bomber program, Welsh responded: “I don’t know that we need to talk about that right now.
“This is not something we have to get into right now because we want the program to keep moving, and not have the dictations that many other programs have as they get closer to fielding,” the Air Force chief said. “It’s fair then, but right now, let’s just get it on track and keep it on track.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of information that’s being kept deeply secret,” Welsh continued. “I don’t think we know this yet. We’re in ranges, we’re working details, and the program office is working real hard with industry and the people who give us oversight. There are people who are watching this very closely. There’s nothing that’s happening by accident in the bomber program.”
What is known about the bomber is fairly limited. It has been identified as one of the service’s three key modernization priorities, to the point that acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox told an audience Feb. 26 that “[W]e actually took out more Air Force structure than we would like to protect the new long-range bomber.”
The Air Force’s other two priorities are the KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tanker and F-35 joint strike fighter.
The Air Force intends to begin fielding the bomber in the mid-2020s, with penetrating capability in mind. The service will procure 80 to 100 planes, which will mostly be made with existing technologies. Those machines will also have both standoff and direct-attack munitions and room for a large payload.
The service also is exploring the idea of the aircraft being optionally manned.
Service officials have cited a cost of $550 million per plane as the ceiling for the program, but even that figure has some mystery to it. Observers have noted that the figure does not include research and development (R&D) costs, which could drive that amount up.
“While Air Force officials continue to argue the bomber is relatively inexpensive in the near term, FY2014 probably marks the last time the bomber will receive less than $1 billion on the year,” said Marc Quint, a graduate research assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“Official budget documents for FY2014 show a little over $1 billion projected for FY2015, and since the Air Force has been working to consolidate support for the bomber to avoid sequestration, [this year’s] budget request will probably be comparable to that projection,” Quint said.
“The interesting part will be seeing if FY2019 matches the latest planning document at over $3 billion,” Quint said. “If so, it would mean the bomber is projected to cost over $10 billion in the next five years alone, making it increasingly difficult to protect from budget cuts.”
Grant said she believes the R&D cost might be lower than for older platforms, in part because the service plans to draw from existing technologies that have been tested on platforms such as the F-35 or Navy’s unmanned carrier strike plane.
“It’s not the F-22 that spent nearly a decade in design prior to downselect,” she said. “I don’t think we’re looking at the same kind of thing here, and there has been a lot of technology development. So to me, there is a chance the R&D might not be a huge number because they’re looking to capitalize on a relatively more mature set of technologies, for better or worse.”
Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff, described setting that price point as a way to keep requirements from skyrocketing during development.
“We want to get 80 to 100 of these, and the only way to do that is to keep the price down,” he said. “So we have had to turn back the temptation to put more stuff on this bomber.” ■