WASHINGTON — Constrained US Air Force budgets over the coming decade will likely pit the Joint Strike Fighter against the Long Range Strike Bomber, potentially making the bomber project vulnerable to congressional deficit hawks, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in defense issues, said Congress has not yet accepted – as the Pentagon has – that the US no longer enjoys worldwide aerial superiority.

This makes the LRS-B program vulnerable to cuts by a cost-conscious Congress, much as the B-2 became a sacrificial lamb to budget-balancing efforts in the 1990s, she said.

"The Air Force budget is not equipped to fully support this program already," she said, noting that space already consumes 15 percent of the Air Force's budget. Other modernization programs, including two-thirds of the nuclear triad, as well as a recapitalization of its Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) and development of a new trainer aircraft, also face budget crunches.

"It can't even fund all of its top modernization programs as is," she said.

Last month, the Air Force awarded the contract for the LRS-B, which could be worth more than $80 billion over the life of the program, to Northrop Grumman. The losing team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin filed a formal protest over the award with the Government Accountability Office on Nov. 6.

While the GAO has 100 days to make its ruling, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said recently she is confident the award will stand with Northrop Grumman as the winner.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance who serves as dean of the Mitchell Institute, said Tuesday that policymakers didn’t understand the urgent need for the LRS-B, not just for the USAF but for the well-being of the country.

It is a mistake to think of the LRS-B as a just the next phase in the evolution of the bomber, an update and improvement on the capabilities of the B-2, he said. It would be more accurate to describe the aircraft as a long-range sensor shooter, he said.

"Modern aircraft systems today are not just follow-ons to their predecessors, they're not just evolutionary in nature," he said. "If you look at what aircraft like F-22, F-35, and LRS-B can bring to the equation, they are actually information nodes in what we have often talked about being the baseline of the third offset strategy, which is the ubiquitous and seamless sharing of information amongst a variety of systems."

The aircraft will enable allies to work together with a degree of cohesiveness and interoperability that modern militaries have never had before, he said. In that context, the wingman to an LRS-B is not another bomber, but the AEGIS cruiser that it shares information with.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said the downselects and subcontractors involved in the LRS-B, about which little is known due to the classified nature of most of the program, will have large implications for mergers and acquisitions activity within the defense industrial base.

"This is the one program that actually gets decided this decade, so it has an enormous shadow effect ever everyone," he said.

Many companies are spending less on research and development, opting instead to placate investors by returning value through share buybacks and dividends, he said. With the industrial base producing less innovation, which raises the stakes on the few programs that are in development.

"Technological superiority really comes down to the individual programs, and unless they work out, we really don't have any," he said.

Most members of Congress care about the bomber's economic footprint in their district, and with so little known about where the bomber and its subsystems will be built, the LRS-B is at a political disadvantage to the F-35, he said.

Email: aclevenger@defensenews.com.

Twitter: @andclev

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