No matter which company wins the new B-3 bomber deal, the program’s advocates will start facing the first of many budget battles before any metal has been bent.
U.S. bomber programs have a history of political trouble. The B-1 bomber was a political football in the 1970s and 1980s. The B-2 bomber buy was curtailed from 132 down to 21 after the Cold War ended. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates decided in 2009 to kill an earlier version of the B-3 that had been slated to start procurement in 2018.
Today, the Air Force has done itself no favors in the political arena by how it has described the new bomber’s price tag. The service has said that it expects the planes to cost $550 million a copy for 100 planes. Accordingly, most press accounts have referred to the program as a $55 billion initiative.
They are less than half right.
The figure doesn’t include the effects of inflation or the cost of developing the plane, which together bring the acquisition price to $111 billion, assuming no overruns. That figure would more than double to over $200 billion when the cost of maintaining and operating the planes is included.
The bomber’s costs will be under a microscope because the program will enter procurement in the 2020s, the same decade that will witness big production runs for a number of other top-dollar programs. These include the F-35 fighter for the Air Force and Navy; the KC-46 tanker and a new intercontinental nuclear missile for the Air Force; new nuclear missile subs for the Navy, plus fast-attack subs, destroyers and aircraft carriers; and new vehicles to replace aging Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees in the Army.
The Air Force bomber program may find itself sniped at—mostly in secretive ways—by its sister services, experts say. Of the Air Force’s big three programs—the F-35, the tanker and the bomber—the bomber lacks support from the Navy, Marine Corps and Army that the other two programs have, says Andrew Hunter, a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. So there will be little love lost for the bomber.
As a result, the bomber’s advocates need to make a strong case for why the planes are more cost-effective and operationally potent than fighter jets and other weapons. That’s because of the bombers’ huge payloads, range, stealth and reduced logistics requirements compared to supporting numerous fighter jets.
“The Air Force can’t just be complacent,” says Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies at the Air Force Association. “It doesn’t take a creative narrative to prove why this is important. Nothing else comes close.”
Currently, Boeing and Lockheed Martin appear to have more clout on Capitol Hill than Northrop Grumman, because of the extent of their subcontractor base and the amount of their campaign contributions and lobbying spending. What’s more, Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat is Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. Boeing might build its bombers in St. Louis, and Missouri Republican Roy Blunt serves on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is a senior member of Armed Services.
Northrop Grumman would probably build its B-3s in Palmdale, Calif. The company is no pushover when it comes to spending on the Hill. Still, it lags behind Lockheed Martin and Boeing in the money race. And it lacks the representation on key committees that those two companies boast, particularly following the retirement of Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, former chairman of House Armed Services, who represented Palmdale.
On the other hand, the B-3 would be more central to Northrop Grumman’s identity and bottom line than to the other companies’, and so Northrop Grumman might be more committed to battling for the program, numerous analysts say.
It’s worth remembering, though, that if divestitures, mergers or acquisitions follow the bomber decision, who represents whom in Congress could change as a result.
What won’t change is the ferocity of the battle over the couple hundred billion dollars that could ultimately be at stake.