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.
when Northrop Grumman won the right to build the Air Force's Long Range Strike Bomber.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
SASC member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., agreed the bomber will likely fight for funding with F-35, "because everything is underfunded."
"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."
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.
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 reportreporting.