WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s decade-long search for a next-generation bomber ended last week, but now a fight is brewing over how the new bomber fits into the Pentagon’s long-term spending blueprint.
As all of the service branches brace for a tsunami of crucial — and costly — modernization programs next decade, top brass will have to reach deep into the Pentagon’s coffers to find cash for the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B).
Unless Congress stands up a separate fund solely to bankroll the new plane, the Air Force is stuck paying for the LRS-B out of its own shallow pockets. If the bomber is forced to compete with other service priorities for funding, smaller programs may fall through the cracks.
Winning contractor Northrop Grumman has already launched a campaign to pressure lawmakers to back the program, and experts are urging the Air Force to publicly push for an LRS-B slush fund. But for now, it is unclear how the Pentagon will pay for the bomber.
Bow Wave of Modernization
LRS-B is part of a bow wave of modernization programs in the mid-2020s that threatens to bust the Pentagon’s belt even in the best fiscal environment. The Air Force alone plans to be at, or ramping up to, full-rate production for its top three priorities at the same time: the F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46 tanker and LRS-B.
Meanwhile, the service’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTRS), T-X trainer and Air Force One are overdue for upgrades.
Perhaps a greater threat, LRS-B must also compete for funding with the other legs of the nuclear triad: the Air Force’s replacement for the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement submarines. The Navy will begin a massive effort to replace its boomer fleet in the early 2020s, and has been vocal on Capitol Hill about the critical need for the program.
The Pentagon's belt tightening is not likely to ease anytime soon. Congress last week passed a sweeping two-year budget deal that cuts defense spending from $612 billion to $607 billion. The deal avoids a long-term continuing resolution, which would have wreaked havoc on each of the armed service budgets, but likely reduces the Air Force's top line.
Experts are divided on how the Pentagon will pay its bills. Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, said the Air Force should fence funding for LRS-B, much like the Navy has done for the Ohio submarines.
Congress has set up a separate account to funnel money into the Navy’s replacement submarine program, the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund, but has not yet committed funding.
There is “a very good chance” lawmakers will set up a separate pot of money above the Air Force’s base funding to build LRS-B, Grant said.
However, the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee does not foresee a separate piggy bank for the bomber.
Ohio replacement is a unique program that represents 70 percent of the nation’s strategic deterrence, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., told Defense News. By contrast, LRS-B will carry conventional as well as nuclear weapons.
“When you are looking at the Sea Based Deterrence Fund, they are kind of apples and oranges,” Forbes said. “We will do the funding [for LRS-B] but whether or not we have a unique funding system ... I’m not certain that will be needed.”
Forbes stressed that LRS-B is a critical national security need and he will work to ensure the program is fully funded. Although Forbes said he does not see a separate funding mechanism for the bomber on the horizon, he will entertain any proposals the Air Force offers.
The Air Force has not publicly pushed Congress to set up a separate fund solely for the bomber, in contrast to the Navy’s very public insistence that the shipbuilding fund alone cannot cover the new subs.
“I think LRS-B should be treated as a national and strategic funding priority,” Grant said. “The Air Force gains by making that case publicly because, in the end, Congress is a large group of people that represents a much larger group.”
Pitching the Bomber to Congress
To ensure the LRS-B moves forward unhindered by budget cuts, the Air Force must do a better job of selling the program to lawmakers, experts contend.
“When the Air Force goes and fully explains the rationale, I think Congress will be very receptive,” Grant said. “World events alone make this an easy sell ... but the Air Force has to make the case to Congress.”
Todd Harrison and Andrew Hunter, senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urged the Air Force in an Oct. 27 paper to be more transparent with lawmakers about LRS-B’s source selection and cost. The Air Force must also be careful to ensure the program does not fall behind, as further delays could trigger a price spike, they said.
“Greater transparency in the cost estimate will help set expectations appropriately,” they wrote.
The Air Force has not released crucial details about the plane itself. The LRS-B's size, weight and payload remain unknowns, as do the extent of its stealth capabilities. Top officials also declined to say what companies will build key components.
The Pentagon did not even disclose the value of the Oct. 27 award, leaving the aerospace community to guess at the dollar amount of the initial development contract. The award included $23.5 billion in fiscal 2016 dollars for the development phase, as well as procurement of the first 21 bombers. The Air Force has estimated each bomber will cost on average $564 million, but as with most new programs initial aircraft will likely be more expensive.
When the effects of inflation, the cost to procure 100 planes in total and other development costs are included, the Air Force’s overall program cost will likely be more than $100 billion in then-year dollars, Harrison and Hunter wrote.
They warned the Air Force that any delays or cost overruns could erode support for the program on Capitol Hill.
“With a total then-year cost roughly double what some have been reporting, there could be sticker shock in Congress,” they wrote. “Any cost overruns could quickly erode support for the program, especially since the Air Force has made affordability a key selling point for the LRS-B.”
Bomber vs. JSF?
Harrison said it is possible for Congress to fund both LRS-B and Ohio replacement in the 2020s, but lawmakers would need to make steep cuts to other programs to find the money.
The funding would most likely come from cuts to JSF, Harrison said.
“LRS-B is going to be in more of a head-to-head fight with F-35 for funding because they fall under the same account for Air Force procurement,” Harrison said, adding that LRS-B also will compete with programs like JSTARS and the Combat Rescue Helicopter for funding.
Several key members of Congress, including Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also predicted the bomber would compete for funding with JSF.
“Everybody competes, and the F-35 has sucked so much funding out of the room that it makes it hard for other weapons systems,” the vocal JSF critic told Defense News.
SASC member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., agreed the bomber will likely fight for funding with F-35, “because everything is underfunded.”
In a match-up between LRS-B and F-35, Harrison said the bomber would emerge victorious. It is “highly likely” the services will reduce their planned F-35 buys in a few years, he predicted.
“Really, the question about the F-35 program now is how many do we end up buying and what is the maximum production rate that the program gets up to?” Harrison said. “Each of the services will have to relook at their own funding projections and their own requirements.”
Rumors that the Pentagon may reduce its planned 2,443-aircraft buy stemmed from comments the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chief of naval operations made this summer. In written testimony for his nomination hearing in July, Gen. Joe Dunford seemed to signal that a review of the total projected F-35 buy was underway.
However, the F-35 Joint Program Office and a Pentagon spokesman have since stated that no major review of the numbers exists.
Lawmakers and the Pentagon fully understand that both the LRS-B and F-35 are crucial for national security, Grant said, adding that she does not foresee the two programs dueling for cash. Both LRS-B and F-35 are built into the Air Force’s long-term budget plan, Grant said.
Air Force officials and experts alike have expressed concern to Defense News over the past few months that the service is not doing enough to pave the way for LRS-B on Capitol Hill. But the Air Force is not alone in its effort to sell LRS-B to the world.
Less than two hours after the Air Force announced Northrop Grumman was its choice to build the bomber, the company launched AmericasNewBomber.com, in what appears to be a move to protect against both a protest and future budget cuts.
The website is largely focused on explaining why the country needs a new fleet of stealth bombers. Splashed over a picture of a bomber pilot reads the warning: “Our potential adversaries are extending their reach, and stealth bombers are America’s most strategic asset to deter future threats and keep our nation safe. Today we only have 20 of them.”
Below, a blaring red “Take Action” button lets supporters send an email urging top elected officials, like President Barack Obama and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, to back the program.
LRS-B already has several key supporters in Congress, including the chairman and ranking member of the powerful House Armed Services sea power and projection forces subcommittee.
In a comment to Defense News before the contract award, Forbes voiced his support for the program as the time for the announcement approached.
"We're 150 percent behind the bomber. It's strategically important to the country," Forbes declared. "We're excited they're moving forward with it, whoever wins. Our subcommittee and I believe the full committee is going to be 100 percent behind making sure this becomes a reality."
Ranking member Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., in a statement following the award, touted LRS-B as crucial to the nation’s strike and power-projection capabilities.
“Our nation’s ability to project power and strike from far distances is a cornerstone of our warfighting capabilities — both now and well into the future,” Courtney said. “In the coming months, Congress must do all it can on a bipartisan basis to support this program, while also providing the necessary oversight to ensure successful execution.”
Aaron Mehta, Andrew Clevenger and Joe Gould contributed to this report.