The Future of the Long-Range Strike Bomber
By: Rhys McCormick
Shrouded in secrecy, the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) is the last of three Air Force modernization priorities, following the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and KC-46 aerial refueling tanker. The LRS-B will replace the aging B-2 bomber fleet as a nuclear-capable, long-range, air-refuelable, highly survivable, stealth, penetrating aircraft. With enemy air-defense systems rapidly becoming more advanced, the B-2 is now the only bomber capable of reliably penetrating these hostile airspaces. Despite the importance of the program, the LRS-B remains an enigma, with senior officials simply referring to the classified aspect of the program when asked about any element besides its cost.
Senior Air Force officials, including Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh, have all publicly declared that the Air Force will procure 80–100 LRS-B aircraft at a cost of no more than $550 million per aircraft, not including any research, development, testing, and evaluation costs. Despite a plan to keep production costs down through the use of mature technologies, Air Force acquisition history suggests the LRS-B will run significantly over budget. Similar to the LRS-B, initial procurement plans for the B-2 called for the procurement of 132 B-2 aircraft. However, the program grew so expensive that production was limited to just 21 aircraft.
Now, with just 20 B-2 aircraft and the B-52 and B-1 approaching 62 and 40 years in service, respectively, the United States cannot afford to simply curtail procurement as it did with the B-2. Nor in the current fiscal environment can the Air Force spend its way out of a problem as it did with the F-35. Congress and Pentagon officials should exert their oversight responsibilities and establish considerable programmatic review procedures to detect signs of trouble early in the acquisition process for LRS-B. With global strike a core tenet of U.S. defense policy, and the future of the mission in danger, the program cannot be allowed to flop.