The Air Force very quietly released a Request for Proposal (RFP) this summer for the new Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). With a purported fly away cost of $550 million per aircraft — but with estimates up to $810 million — the LRS-B will be one of the largest acquisition programs in history with broad strategic implications to the end of this century. Although I am not privy to the RFP, as a career stealth bomber pilot I believe the B-2 program can provide important lessons for this new program. Stealth technology is unique in many ways. We should learn from past struggles as we start at the ground floor of this new platform.
What should we do?
Resist research and development cost overruns: About 80 percent of stealth capability depends on the aircraft’s shape and design. The real cost comes in chasing the last 20 percent with cutting edge materials and technology. The B-2 evolved over the years to make it more maintainable, but few improvements were made in its baseline stealth signature. A focus on getting the overall shape right coupled with a balanced approach to pushing the technological boundaries can help significantly to control costs.
Make it sustainable and maintainable: Closely related to materials and technology is overall sustainability. A 90 percent solution using easily maintained low observable materials creates a vastly better warfighting machine than an edge-of-the-envelope design that is difficult and expensive to maintain. The technical edge lost can be more than offset by good planning. To a stealth pilot, mission planning is life. I’d take a small hit on cutting edge technology if the tradeoff is a reliable low observable signature I can use consistently for planning. We need to resist the urge to make the new plane exquisite and focus on making it a reliable bombing platform that can fly for the next half century or longer.
Decide now on the nuclear mission: The Air Force currently plans to certify the LRS-B as nuclear capable at a later date. This is feasible given the current force structure, but the nuclear mission must play a central role in the aircraft’s design from the start, as we’ve seen what happens when we slight this critical mission area. Build this aircraft as a true dual-role weapons system — don’t try to just add the nuclear mission in later. At least 50 of the baseline 100 aircraft should be nuclear capable to pick up the mission as the B-52 finally heads off into the sunset around 2040. Making an aircraft survivable in the nuclear environment comes with significant costs, not just in dollars, but in terms of tradeoffs of hardware capability to ensure its ability to operate in adverse environments. Reengineering the jet at a later date will result in high costs across the board. When the aircraft actually gets certified for nuclear use is a question of policy. But building the right number with nuclear capability is the question that must be answered before LRS-B starts to come off the assembly line.