Although much of the long-range strike bomber program remains shrouded in mystery, three independent analysts told lawmakers on Sept. 9 that the Air Force was on the right path to avoid the cost and requirements growth it saw during the B-2 and F-35 programs.

Northrop Grumman's B-2 bomber. Photo: Air Force.
Northrop Grumman’s B-2 bomber. Photo: Air Force.

Details on the LRS-B program remain scarce, but the service has funded the two competitors—B-2 manufacturer Northrop Grumman [NOC] and a Lockheed Martin [LMT]-Boeing [BA] team—to conduct extensive risk reduction on integrating propulsion systems, apertures and antennas, said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research.

“What this means to us is that the winning designs will be far more mature than other types of aircraft programs, and specifically, I believe, quite a bit more mature than the B-2 at a comparable stage of development,” she told the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee. “This winning design should go into EMD [the engineering and manufacturing development phase] with some critical work already carried out.”

The Air Force is slated to downselect to a single LRS-B competitor as early as this month, with the first aircraft slated for fielding in the mid-2020s.  The service plans to buy about 80 to 100 bombers at a unit cost of about $550 million — a target that the Air Force should be able to stick to, given its extensive risk reduction work, Grant said.

Robert J. Elder Jr., a retired Air Force lieutenant general and a research professor at George Mason University, argued that the service will need more than 100 aircraft that to replace the aging bomber fleet. The United States only has 100 combat-ready bombers, and only the B-2 fleet—which make up fewer than 20 planes— is capable of penetrating modern air defenses, he said.

“One hundred bombers should be considered the minimum initial procurement quantity,” he said in written testimony to HASC. “Substantially more aircraft will be needed to replace both the B-1 [63 aircraft] and B-52 [76 aircraft] fleets and meet the demands of the combatant commanders for bomber forces in support of their operations.”

Grant and Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, concurred with Elder’s assessment.

“80 to 100 is a start,” Grant said. “I think closer to 150 might be better to assure the persistence and sortie generation [necessary].”

The Air Force is developing  LRS-B during a time of budget constraints that could make it more difficult for the service to keep the program stable. Gunzinger warned that cuts to procurement or decreases to its production rate could result in huge cost increases similar to what occurred in the F-22 and B-2 programs, leading to an “acquisition death spiral.”

Grant was one of a handful of analysts privy to an Air Force briefing earlier this month that more extensively detailed the program than ever before.  The new bomber will have more advanced stealth and electronic warfare capabilities. It will be able to carry a payload mix that includes “small, precise munitions” and “heavier munitions for hardened and deeply varied targets,” she said. It will also have an open software architecture enabling it to have greater communications and data link capabilities.

LRS-B will be able to suppress airfields, counter enemy air defenses and help hunt, destroy and contain enemy surface naval vessels and submarines, Grant said. It will be nuclear-capable at its first flight test, but not nuclear-certified until after that.

“This bomber, therefore, has to have the ability to do what is asked for it now and also do a bit more as we look for upgrades and new mission capabilities over time, and that means planning now the airframe with the classic power, space and cooling and the ability to accommodate those upgrades,” she said.