As the Air Force prepares to announce which company will build its next stealth bomber, it will do so under the scrutiny of lawmakers who will be looking for cost overruns and delays in the program that's already seen its budgets slashed by Congress.
Northrop Grumman is competing against a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the contract, which will be announced in just a few weeks.
The new bomber is highly classified — not even the request for proposals was made public. So despite a high level of interest, the Air Force has already cautioned that the much-awaited award notification isn't likely to include more than just the name of the winning company. So no space-age illustrations or even the most general of details to tickle the imagination.
Why? Because a long-range bomber capable of penetrating ever-more sophisticated missile and radar systems is a top strategic defense priority, and not just for the U.S. Just a few weeks before the U.S. planned its bomber announcement, China leaked through state media its own news: It, too, has a long-range strike-bomber in the works.
"Emerging signs indicate that China has decided to develop a next-generation strategic bomber," the state-run newspaper China Daily reported in early July, citing that China's Aviation Industry Corp. has worked on the future airframe since 2008.
Part of the secrecy on the U.S. side comes from hard lessons learned. U.S. blueprints for its F-35 joint strike fighter were hacked by the Chinese. As a result, dozens of years of technological edge were lost and China has attempted to replicate the future fighter with its own version, the already operational J-31.
As a result, the companies competing for the U.S. bomber contract have had little to say to the media on it. A spokesman for the Lockheed Martin-Boeing entry emphasized that, due to the classification of the program, he could provide only a previously-issued statement.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin would be "building on decades of manned and unmanned weapon systems experience," and "we're confident that our team will meet the well-defined system requirements and deliver a world-class next generation long range strike-bomber to the U.S. Air Force within the budget and time frame required," said Lockheed Martin spokesman Kenneth Ross.
Randy Belote, vice president of communications for Northrop Grumman, likewise would not discuss his company's bomber offering, but said, "As the nation's only company to design, build, deliver and sustain a long-range stealth bomber, Northrop Grumman is well positioned for any future Air Force program."
For the U.S. and China, the need for a future long-range bomber is the same: the ability to penetrate and be able to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons in airspace where adversaries have anti-aircraft artillery, missiles, radars and sensors that have so rapidly advanced that the current generation of long-range bombers are no longer stealthy or advanced enough.
"Although we are upgrading our current fleets, they are increasingly at risk to modern air defenses," said Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick. For the U.S., it's also added protection for the F-35.
The need for stealth — and range
In a hypothetical scenario where the U.S. is defending its interests in Japan or Taiwan, any F-35s in the fight would need to launch from ships or bases at close range to China's coast to be able to penetrate contested airspace, and they may need to refuel mid-flight, because they are too small to carry the fuel needed for long-range missions.
But that puts those U.S. ships, refuelers and bases at risk from rapidly advancing missiles from potential adversaries such as China or North Korea; the missiles are quickly gaining in distances and their ability to evade U.S. missile defenses, making it cheaper and easier for either country to destroy a national asset like an aircraft carrier with relatively little risk.
"You have to deal with the tyranny of range in the Pacific," said Teal Group defense industry analyst Richard Aboulafia. "You need the ability to deliver airstrikes against a future adversary in a place that doesn't lend itself to tactical aircraft."
For years, proponents of the F-35 have argued that the advanced stealth capabilities of the joint strike fighter would give it added protections against radar detection and increase its range of activity. But even as recently as last year, China announced that its new radar, the DWL002, would still be able to "see" the F-35 regardless of its new stealth capabilities by focusing not on a radar signature, but on any electronic noise generated either by the airplane's engines or electronic navigation and communications systems.
So deterrence will need to lie elsewhere, and for proponents who find that the ultimate deterrence lies in U.S. capabilities to launch conventional or nuclear weapons from any trajectory, the answer is a new long range bomber.
"The new bomber will utilize mature technologies and existing systems to reduce program complexity," Gulick said. "Yet this will be a significant improvement over current aircraft as so many advancements have occurred that will make this aircraft far above what the others can offer."
When the long-range strike-bomber is actually built and ready for its debut, which is scheduled for the mid-2020s, more than 30 years will have passed since its younger predecessors, the B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit, made their own debuts back in 1984 and 1988, respectively. (While each bomber debuted in those years, the B-1 did not officially enter into service until 1986, followed by the B-2 in 1993.) For context on how much has changed since then, the Apple IIe, floppy disks and eight megabytes of random access memory were cutting edge technology at the time.
The oldest of the bomber fleet, the B-52 Stratofortress, will be nearing its 90th birthday by the time "B-3" — as it's come to be known in aviation circles — makes its maiden flight. And 90 years won't even be the end of its planned service.
"There's a clear need for this program," said Peter Singer, a senior defense fellow at the New America Foundation. "If you look at the age of the bombers it will replace, some will not just be not older than pilots in them, but older than the senators voting on them."
The age of the B-52s even made it into the first GOP presidential debate, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee using them to illustrate the need for modernizing the military.
"We're flying B-52s," he said. "The most recent one that was put in service was November of 1962. A lot of the B-52s we're flying, we've only got 44 that are in service, combat ready, and the fact is, most of them are older than me. And that's pretty scary."
The Air Force's fleet of about 150 long-range bombers includes about 70 B-52s, 60 B-1s and 20 B-2s. At any given time, fewer than 100 of those aircraft are operational due to maintenance or spare parts issues. Even so, these aging bombers will continue to be upgraded and maintained as the best option available until the new long-range strike-bomber comes online, the Air Force said. The Pentagon is counting on the B-2 being around and useful until 2058; the B-1s and B-52s until the 2040 range.
When the U.S. awarded a $9.9 billion modernization and maintenance contract to Northrop Grumman in 2014 to upgrade the remaining 20 operational B-2s, industry experts took it as a sign that the future stealth bomber was likely to look and feel a lot like the existing one. Defense Department officials have not tried to persuade otherwise, assuring Congress that the future aircraft would very much rely on existing, matured technologies.
The new bomber will be "based upon mature technology. As I think you know, we've established an achievable and stable set of requirements," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters in a 2014 briefing on the service's new platform.
"The expectation is they will take the same design, make it better, make it use the latest systems. It won't be a massive technological leap," Aboulafia said.
That said, "The [bomber] is going to be a very advanced bomber," then-Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld told Congress in June.
That means the design of the B-3 is likely to take a lot of its cues from the B-2's flying wing design, and push them forward.
The shape of the B-2 is a key part of its ability to minimize and deflect its signature, or what it looks like to radar. The rear of the B-2 is a saw-tooth shape that allows the aircraft to redirect radar waves to change what the radar "sees." The B-2's engines are hidden inside the airframe and angled to reduce the heat and exhaust emitted that can also be used to detect them. Over the years, the B-2 has been modified with special coatings to further reduce the likelihood it will be detected by radar.
But the Air Force is also seeking its next-generation bomber to be long-range and not need nearby refueling, for the same reasons as the joint-strike fighter, which may affect the final design.
"There is a reason it is shaped the way it is," Singer said. "You see it playing out with the Navy on [its future unmanned carrier aircraft]. Do you want something that's stealthy or something that is long-range? Whichever one you emphasize drives you to one design or another."
The wedge-shaped B-2 also seats two, and while the future B-3 will have unmanned variants, the first design of the next generation bomber is planned to be manned, the Air Force said.
Then there's speed. While the B-2 is fast, its top speed is still subsonic, meaning below the speed of sound. At any faster speeds, the bomber would emit heat and other signatures that would give it away. For comparison, the B-1 is a much faster supersonic bomber, with published top speeds of 1.2 times the speed of sound — a speed the Air Force slowed from a faster rate in order to better protect the B-1 from detection. While the B-1 also has some engineering and materials to absorb radar, it is not stealthy, given its four external afterburner engines.
Initial versions of the B-3 are not likely to solve this tradeoff; giving up speed for stealth, but should improve upon what's already out there, Aboulafia said.
"Stealth is a function primarily of airframe shapes and coatings," Aboulafia said. "The bigger challenge is reconciling all three attributes: stealth, speed and range."
None of this comes cheaply. The Air Force intends to procure 80-100 bombers, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates set a price tag for that purchase back in 2010: $550 million per plane. But the next generation bomber may never achieve that cost limit per plane when all other factors are added.
First, the $550 million price tag per plane counts only for production costs, not the research and development behind it. Despite the Air Force's stated goal that the plane will be based on "mature" technologies, the Air Force is budgeting $16 billion for research, development, test and evaluation for it.
"What the Air Force has said publicly is that it will have average procurement costs of $550 million in 2010 dollars. So none of that [R&D] money is included," said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
And while the Air Force has said its new bomber will be built using mature technology and set a price limit per unit, it's hesitant to acquire the plane using a fixed-price contract because of the unknowns still out there, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition William LaPlante said to Congress this year. Instead, the service is likely to use a "cost-plus" contract for the winning firm, which can absorb more unknowns and price shifts.
"If you're developing something that's very cutting edge, it's very hard to estimate how much it's going to cost ... That's why we tend to go cost-plus," LaPlante said in March to the House Armed Services subcommittee on projection forces. "My belief on the [bomber] is ... that we are doing a little bit more cutting edge. It's not based upon a commercial item. And so I think more likely it's going to be in a cost-plus regime.
With just the production costs and average yearly inflation, the airframe already exceeds $550 million per copy, Harrison said. Historically, the first few aircraft are the most expensive and the last aircraft — if the Air Force does reach full production of all 100 bombers — are the cheapest. But recent purchases suggest the service won't see the full 80-100 airframes, Harrison said.
The Air Force's initial buy for its immediate predecessor, the B-2, called for 132 bombers. Due to cost overruns and program delays, production stopped at 21. The fifth generation F-22 Raptor fighter was initially planned to yield 700 aircraft; production stopped at 187, Harrison said. Meaning the chances that the B-3's per-copy cost will stick at $550 million are slim.
"You have to be kind of frank and say 'hey, there is a pattern,' " Harrison said. "We're not going to know what the full per unit costs of what this aircraft will be until the late 2030s. We might know sooner if the program gets cancelled."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in March that the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, will "closely monitor the Air Force's ambitious $550 million unit cost target."
"This program is essential to overcoming growing operational risk to our ability to project power in anti-access and denied environments, and it must be delivered on time and on budget," he said at a hearing.
McCain, who has prioritized reforming the Pentagon's acquisition system to hold senior leaders accountable for huge cost overruns and delays, declined to say if funding for the new aircraft was being discussed in ongoing negotiations over the fiscal 2016 defense policy bill, but said Congress needs to keep a close eye on the long range strike-bomber.
"I think we do, of course. But I can't discuss conference items," he told the Washington Examiner.
The Air Force also made several mistakes in its reporting the costs of the new plane to Congress, which "does not inspire a lot of confidence," Bloomberg reported on Monday. Last year, the Air Force estimated costs of the program would be $33.1 billion from fiscal 2015-25. In this year's projected budget, the costs jumped to $58.4 billion.
When Bloomberg asked about the huge discrepancy, the Air Force said both numbers are wrong and the correct one is $41.7 billion, which will be corrected in the congressional report.
In his testimony to the Hill, LaPlante was adamant that the next-generation bomber would be built at $550 million a copy, and that price would affect what's included in the new plane. But he left wiggle room for how future modifications would be financed.
"Industry has to design to that number and we're going to assess against that number," LaPlante said. "That's why we did it."
So it is not clear if the $550 million is just the shell, and whether the bomber's modular design to allow for easier upgrades would count against that sum.
"We're building an adaptable architecture as well to address some of these other issues," LaPlante said.
"People will say, the B-2 cost so much money, and now 25 years later you're going to have a better airplane, a plane that has the ability to penetrate and do its job better ... orders of magnitude better, and you're only going to do it for $550 million a copy? ... People kind of, you know, they say that's not possible," Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said at an Air Force Association breakfast in May.
"We will do it. If you want to attack the idea of a long range strike-bomber, I simply ask, why don't you wait and see what incredible engineering it's going to be, how we're going to get it done and hold us accountable? Hold us accountable when we say, 'We're going to control requirements and we're going to get it done,'" Harencak continued.
However, based on his experience and analysis of three dozen major Pentagon acquisitions programs, Harrison wonders how that's possible. In his work, he found that weapons systems on average overran their initial cost estimates by 57 percent for development costs and 34 percent for procurement costs.
On a program as large as the long range strike-bomber, "Imagine if we had cost overruns of that magnitude," Harrison said, offering that his own estimate, accounting for research and development costs, inflation and cost overruns for the new plane puts it roughly at the same price per airframe as its predecessor — about $110 billion total, or possibly more than $1 billion per bomber.
The program already saw its research and development funding slashed in both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2016 defense policy bill because of a delay in awarding the contract. Both chambers provide $460 million less than the department's budget, bringing the new total for development funding to $786 million.
With the cuts, the House bill "authorizes the full amount for the program that the Air Force can execute in fiscal 2016, given contract award delays," according to a release from the House Armed Services Committee.
Sending a message
In the end, the Air Force says the price for the new bomber is worth it. When talking about why a replacement bomber is needed, the Air Force often turns to a 2013 incident over Korea.
In 2013, in response to some erratic behavior by North Korea, the U.S. staged an unusual exercise. Two B-2s flew for 38 hours straight from the U.S. to South Korea and back, dropping ordnance at a weapons range there before doing a low-level flyover of Osan Air Base to allow the B-2 to be photographed and shared rapidly via social media.
"To North Korea, we said, we have another message for you — and it was a deterrent message — that we have a dual-capable bomber that can go anywhere at the time and place of our choosing," Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said at an industry breakfast.
At a different Air Force Association breakfast, Harencak used the story to further drive in the point: "How was it reported by the major press?" he challenged. "You probably saw the pictures. We had two F-16s when the B-2 flew over. What did they all talk about? What did they say?"
"Did they say, 'Some Air Force airplanes flew over Korea?' No, they said nuclear-capable bombers flew over. Think about that for a moment."
"It was reported as nuclear-capable bombers because it sends a message."
Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this report.