The Air Force’s simple, no-frills, advanced new bomber

The Air Force wants a next-level, world-beating new bomber that uses "proven" gear and doesn't cost too much. What tradeoffs would this require?

The Air Force doesn’t even want you to know it’s building a new bomber, but service officials graciously included two paragraphs about the program in DoD’s budget overview on Monday. Here they are in their entirety:

The next generation bomber is a new acquisition program that began in FY 2012. By leveraging the “Family of Systems” synergistic capabilities, the new bomber will not need the same capabilities that were planned for the previous Next Generation Bomber. The new bomber will incorporate many subsystems (engines, radars, other avionics) and technologies that are already proven. The bomber will carry precision-guided conventional weapons and nuclear weapons. It will be optionally manned, providing operational flexibility when planning missions of long duration or in challenging anti-access environments.

By relying on proven technologies and by planning to evolve the aircraft over time as threats evolve, similar to the B-52 legacy fleet, the up-front acquisition costs will be reduced significantly from the B-2 experience. The average procurement unit cost is anticipated to be about $550 million in FY 2010 dollars for a fleet of 80-100 aircraft. The Air Force plans to utilize an executive-level, highly streamlined, stable oversight structure to manage the program, and keep requirements manageable, tradable and affordable. Funding in FY 2013 is $0.3 billion and totals $6.3 billion from FY 2013 – FY 2017.

Let’s review: The new official line for mass consumption seems to be that the Air Force no longer wants a hypersonic Romulan Warbird complete with cloaking device and disruptor beams. Rather, it wants a good ‘ol pickup that borrows components from airplanes that already fly, and one that, like the eternal B-52, can eventually take missions its original designers might never have dreamed of. The airplane won’t cost anything close to a $2 billion B-2, and that means the Air Force can buy as many as 100 of them — the most of any one model bomber it will have flown in decades.

Since it’s no longer the Next-Generation Bomber, the Air Force needed a new name. So it reached deep into its poetic blue soul — the place that has given us aircraft with incredible names such as “Valkyrie;” “Stratofortress;” and “Thunderchief,” and decided to call the new bomber “LRS-B.” Here’s what the service said in its own budget synopsis Monday:

The Air Force is committed to modernizing bomber capacity and capabilities to support LRS [Long-Range Strike] military options. Development of the next steps to advance the family of systems critical to the LRS capability is ongoing. These steps include the platforms, ISR, electronic warfare, communications and weapons that make up this critical national capability. The future bomber, LRS-B, must be able to penetrate the increasingly dense anti-access/area denial environments developing around the world. To this end, the Air Force FY 2013 Budget Request includes funding to continue the development of an affordable, long range, penetrating aircraft that incorporates proven technologies. This follow-on bomber represents a key component to the Joint portfolio of conventional and nuclear deepstrike capabilities.

Not quite as down-to-earth and not quite as rosy in the service-level documents. Inside its wedge of the Building, the Air Force evidently still views its new bomber as only one system sibling in the system family of systems that will collectively put steel on tomorrow’s targets. This muddies the waters a little — it’s one thing to build a reliable ‘ol airplane that can haul a buncha bombs, but it’s another to assume that your new bomber must also have new off-board “ISR, electronic warfare, communications and weapons.”

The danger for the Air Force is that for however simple and cheap it makes the new airplanes, it could wind up like the surface Navy when GAO asked about the Air and Missile Defense Radar: Contemplating a less-capable platform that relies on as-yet undeveloped, “Enemy of the State”-level sensor and space network integration. Or, at worst, Long Range Strike could become the Air Force’s version of Future Combat Systems, involving so many new programs and requiring so much integration that it could collapse under its own weight. So not only does the service need to tackle the already difficult job of just building a new airplane, it needs to make sure it can actually field all the accessories, too.