Air Force leaders last week announced their choice of the Northrop Grumman Corp. Aerospace Systems segment in Redondo Beach, Calif., to develop the LRS-B. The contract, of undisclosed value, is for engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) -- the Pentagon's term for full-scale development.
I especially like three things about the LRS-B project, which if the Air Force can stay on course will bode well for the big jet bomber project and most likely prevent its cancellation in the future. Plans now call for the LRS-B to join the Air Force aircraft fleet in the mid 2020s.
First is cost. Air Force leaders say they plan to develop a bomber that can deliver conventional and nuclear weapons anywhere in the world from bases within the Continental United States at a cost of about one-third of today's most advanced U.S. bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
Second is technology. the Air Force seeks to use an open-systems architecture for the plane's avionics and other subsystems. This approach will help mitigate the effects of electronics component obsolescence and has the potential to ensure the bomber can be designed and retrofitted with the latest electronic technologies over the duration of its lifetime.
Third is the Air Force's plan to introduce optionally piloted versions of the LRS-B sometime after the plane's introduction. This plane won't see action for at least 10 years, and just imagine the advances in unmanned aircraft technology that will come over the next decade.
While the LRS-B today is envisioned primarily as a piloted aircraft, I would imagine that ultimately the plane's operations mostly will be unmanned. Let's face it, for most of that aircraft's routine missions there won't be much need for human pilots to be aboard -- even in heavily contested environments.
I suspect that LRS-B pilots nearly all the time will be safely on the ground at unmanned aircraft operating centers at U.S. air bases. In addition, we don't know what the next 10 years will bring in aircraft automation technology.
With apologies to today's Air Force bomber pilots, it may turn out that the LRS-B will be more effective and survivable without human pilots on board. Think of what it takes to accommodate a human pilot: air conditioning, survival gear, protective systems, oxygen, and the list goes on. Might the space on that aircraft be better used for weapons, sensors, electronic warfare equipment, and other systems dedicated to the attack mission?
All this sounds good on paper, but we'll see how things play out as the LRS-B program moves forward. It's rare for major weapons programs to avoid deep problems like cost overruns, requirements creep, or compromising capability to stay within budget constraints.
Curiously the only references to dollar figures in the Air Force's LRS-B announcement last week were to 2010 dollars ... that's five-years-ago dollars, not this-year's dollars. It comes across as deceptive, as if the Air Force is trying to conceal what the real LRS-B program costs will be.
Each dollar-value reference, furthermore, is based on an estimate -- again in five-years-ago dollars. "The independent estimate for the EMD phase is $21.4 billion in 2010 dollars," reads one passage. Here's another: "Based on approved requirements, the Average Procurement Unit Cost (APUC) per aircraft is required to be equal to or less than $550 million per aircraft in 2010 dollars when procuring 100 LRS-B aircraft. The APUC from the independent estimate supporting today’s award is $511 million per aircraft, again in 2010 dollars."
So what's with the shell game of estimating program costs based on what money was worth half a decade ago? This doesn't sound good to me at all. The Pentagon is very experienced with shuffling cost estimates on major weapons programs to make things sound good.
On aircraft programs there is program cost, which takes the entire cost of the program -- the anticipated costs of research and development, manufacturing, maintenance, and upgrades -- and dividing that by the number of aircraft to be made. You can see how changing the number of aircraft to be built VASTLY changes the program cost of each airplane.
Then there's fly-away cost, which is an estimate simply of what it costs to build one airplane, without including research, development, and other non-manufacturing program costs. There are other kinds of cost estimates as well, of which that come in handy when the Air Force approaches Congress or the public to give program updates.
Right now Air Force leaders say they want to build 100 Long-Range Strike Bombers. I couldn't imagine the actual number will come anywhere close to that.
Then there are technology challenges. Radar-evading stealth technologies are only a part of what will be necessary for the LRS-B to operate and prevail on a modern technology-dominated battlefield. Not only do U.S. adversaries have advanced radar systems, but they also have infrared, acoustic, and other kinds of sensors that could put the plane in jeopardy.
Electronic warfare, optical warfare, and cyber warfare capability also will be paramount to enable the new bomber to avoid modern surface-to-air missiles and other aspects of air defenses in-depth. No matter how technologically advanced the new plane might be, it still has to fight and survive in the most dangerous airspace the world has ever imagined.
Will the LRS-B be expensive? Of course it will. Will there be technological roadblocks to overcome? Certainly. The real question is what kind of national security value will we get for what the LRS-B will cost? For now, so far, so good. All of us, however, would be well-advised to keep a very close eye on this program.