Is the Next Generation Bomber Worth It?

Can the United States Air Force afford to build dozens of advanced heavy bomber aircraft over the next decade?

If the Pentagon is forced to cut several hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending over the next decade, the Air Force may have to rethink its plans for acquiring a “next generation” or “B-3” bomber plane. Some top military officers have even suggested that the project be canceled altogether.

The Air Force currently flies twenty B-2 Spirit stealth bomber aircraft along with 65 B-1 Lancers. Dozens of old B-52 Stratofortresses are still in service and will continue to fly for at least another 25 years.

The “B-3” was supposed to start phasing in later this decade and augment the largely aging bomber fleet. Boeing and Lockheed Martin embarked on a joint effort to develop the next generation strategic bomber in 2008 and projected that it could cost as much as $40 billion to develop and built. That, some say, is too expensive.

If the Air Force could afford only a handful of the new bombers, Marine Corps General James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this month that it shouldn’t bother.

The general’s main worry is that we will build an “exquisite” aircraft, loaded with the latest stealth, able to fly huge distances and crammed with expensive sensors and end up being able to buy only a few of them. He noted the progression of bomber production numbers: 100s of the venerable B-52; 65 B-1s; and 20 B-2s.

“Building five or ten of something isn’t going to do something for us,” he said, adding that he wants to think of an aircraft of which we could build “hundreds.”

A cheaper, more versatile aircraft that integrates the system capabilities of the new F-22 and F-35 fighters could be an option, said Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Lieutenant General Philip M. Breedlove last year. Cartwright specifically said to favor a large drone aircraft although the prospect of flying nuclear weapons by remote control might be a bit of a stretch.

Secretary Michael Donley of the Air Force and its chief of staff General Norton Schwartz told the Senate in March that the service still hopes to buy eighty to one hundred of the new bombers which are expected to reach initial operating capability in the “mid 2020s.” The Air Force included $197 million for their development in its 2012 budget request and has slated $3.7 billion for the plane over the next five years.