The last time the U.S. Air Force developed a stealth bomber it was the mid 70s. The Air Force was looking for something to replace the slow and unstealthy B-52 but something that could also carry a B-52 level heavy payload. The B-70 was a bust and B-1 was too small.
Nearly 15 years later the B-2 finally flew yet it cost $2.2 billion per plane and couldn’t sit out in the rain on account of its stealthy but sensitive coating. None of the 20 planes are currently based overseas, where it could respond faster in a crisis. While they have been stationed at Guam and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean these operations required special hangers to be built and significant logistic support to care for the sensitive aircraft.
The B-2 bomber remains in service but the Air Force is now looking for a replacement. The replacement aircraft still needs to be a heavy bomber, capable of carrying the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, which would be used if the U.S. sought to destroy a hardened target such as Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In order to meet the long list of classified Air Force requirements, the project will not go into service until at least 2030 and probably much longer after that given how the F-35 and F-22 programs have faired.
In fact the F-35 is probably a good template for how the program will work out – the most expensive of all time. Currently the F-35 is projected to cost $391.1 billion for a fleet of 2,443 planes. Given the B-2’s price tag of $2.4 billion a unit it seems like a great deal however its still ridiculously expensive and could yet come in well over budget.
Yet the biggest issue with a replacement heavy bomber program is the evolution of aerial combat. There is a trend toward relatively cheap yet very fast missiles and smaller drones that attack in large numbers due to advances in UAV technology and the deployment of sophisticated radar systems that can track even the stealthiest fighters. If this is the current reality on the battlefield what will that battlefield look like in 30 years?
The likely reason for the push to a next gen bomber is the fact Northrop Grumman, one of the big 3 aerospace contractors does not have a prime aviation program like Lockheed’s F-35 fighter or Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus tanker. In order to keep a third company in the industry they need a program. This does nothing to improve the odds of a competitive bomber hitting the battlefield in the mid 2030s.
The winds of change are blowing in the military aviation world. Advances in technology are pushing air dominance towards drones and missiles. Cyberwar is reducing the need for bombing – Iran’s nuclear program was not delayed by a Massive Ordinance Penetrator, the military’s heaviest and most powerful non-nuclear bomb, but a sophisticated cyber attack.
Our military should think long and hard whether this program makes sense. Hundreds of billions of dollars buys an awful lot of drones, missiles and cyber gear. Increasingly the next gen heavy bomber program just looks like a solution looking for a problem. Disruption is coming to America’s jet programs and jet manufacturers. We can either be ahead of the curve willingly or forcibly behind it.