The Defense Department will imminently award the long-awaited contract for the new Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) to either Northrop Grumman or a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. So far, though, the program has been met with a mix of skepticism and cautious enthusiasm. The secrecy surrounding the aircraft's development may be strategically appropriate, but it makes the program difficult to analyze. Some think the US Air Force should focus on developing capabilities in new means of war-fighting, such as swarming drones, rather than invest in a new big manned bomber. At this point, however, the leadership of the Air Force and the Defense Department has decided that the LRS-B is important enough to develop and procure. Whatever the program's details, the difficult part starts now. Policymakers must ensure they ask the right questions about the aircraft's necessity, its mission set and its cost.

Perhaps most importantly, policymakers should ask whether the LRS-B is urgently needed. Squadrons of the new bomber will not fly until the mid-2020s. While it is true that the average age of a B-52H is fifty-three 53 years, a B-1B twenty-eight 28 years and a B-2A twenty 20 years, the Air Force has long been advertising that it can keep the older bombers flying until about 2040. During the Cold War, B-52s mostly waited on strip alert, and since then, the wings, fuselages, engines and cockpits have all been replaced. Military action over the last 15 years has mostly involved counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, so a new penetrating bomber was always easy to delay. Today, policymakers must think hard about what war will look like in 20 years, and decide whether a new bomber is the right means for fighting it.

Secondly, policymakers must ask, "What is the LRS-B’s target set?" Here, opinions diverge regarding the utility of the program. Robert Haddick has argued that hunting mobile missiles is the LRS-B’s single most important mission. This effectively means that the bomber must be able to loiter undetected for a significant stretch of time in contested airspace. Even if the LRS-B were un-targetable, it could still be detectable, and its presence would certainly be known from the impact of its weapons hitting targets. Furthermore, mobile missiles are very hard to find, and the United States’ track record of hunting them in several wars has been miserable. So, if the aircraft’s target set will instead comprise primarily fixed sites, why cannot cruise missiles and drones do the job?

Third, policymakers must keep a watchful eye on costs. The massive overruns on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 are merely the latest case in a long history of failure. The projected cost of the LRS-B is $41.7 billion over the next 10 years, and the USAF intends to keep the fixed unit price under $610 million. This might be doable, but so far, it doesn’t look promising. Earlier this summer, the Air Force’s 10-year cost estimate for the program was revised from $33.1 billion, up to $58.2 billion, and then back down to $41.7 billion. Capitol Hill was suitably unhappy about those blunders — Congresswoman Rep. Jackie Speier of California called the discrepancies "massive." The mistake was later tracked to a clerical error that originated outside the program office. All the same, a rocky start like this does not bode well.

The future of the US Air Force’s long-range strike capabilities should continue to be debated throughout the development process and production run of the LRS-B. If costs run over, policymakers must ask why, and whether the aircraft is still worth pursuing at a higher price. As enemy air defenses adapt and mature, and other technologies are developed, the Defense Department must ask whether the aircraft is still relevant. Policymakers now must ensure that they are asking the right, overarching questions so that the Defense Department does not allow acquisition to drive strategy. The interests of any single program must be subordinated to those of security and the treasury.

James Hasik is a nonresident senior fellow for defense with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Rachel Rizzo works on the Strategy Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. The views expressed in this article are their own.

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