The House Armed Services Committee has just cut $460 million in funding for the USAF’s future bomber, the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). This program is aimed at producing a successor to the current heavy bomber fleet, which is a mix of a small number of B-2 stealth bombers, B-1Bs and ancient B-52s. The plan is to buy between 80 and 100 of the new planes, which will be stealthy, probably a lot smaller than the B-2 (the Air Force envisions a design with two fighter-class engines) and capable of hitting targets globally with precision stand-off weapons. The only new US bomber procured since the 1980s is the B-2, of which only 20 exist, so the fleet could do with an upgrade, but the cost of the LRS-B is worrying Congress.
Right now, the estimate is that each LRS-B will cost around $550 million. With the much smaller F-35 currently running at more than $300 million per airframe (although it’s hoped this will fall substantially) that’s not an unreasonable price, but the program is at an early stage. Costs could well rise, and the in-service date – currently estimated as some time in the 2020s – could slip to the right by a decade or more. Budget cuts at this stage could cost a lot of time and money later.
This raises the question of whether a new bomber is the way to go right now, while budgets are hard-pressed. The current fleet will definitely need replaced some time but by the time the LRS-B is ready for service; technology could have made it obsolete. That’s already becoming an issue with the F-35; the new fighter’s stealth capabilities are built into the airframe, and their effectiveness against the latest potential adversary radars is becoming pretty questionable. It’s likely that by the end of the next decade stealth will be based on active systems rather than airframe design, and active systems can be built in to just about any platform – even an ancient B-52.
The choice right now is to gamble a huge sum of money on technologies that could be outdated long before they enter service, or upgrade the current fleet for a much smaller budget and wait to see where things are heading. The USAF plans to operate the B-2s until 2058, and even the B-52s have the airframe life to keep flying until 2040 or beyond. The fact is that few countries, and only a couple of potential threats, have air defense systems that need a B-2 to penetrate. An older B-1 or B-52 can attack almost anywhere in the world, and those airframes have already been paid for. Both types have been steadily upgraded but a more extensive rebuild could transform their capabilities at a fraction of the cost of a new plane. The BUFF, in particular, has a lot of space and lifting capacity for new systems.
The potential for refurbishing older systems doesn’t just apply to aircraft. I toured the battleship Iowa when she was tied up in Richmond, CA in 2012. Now she’s being converted to a museum, but for a few years in the 1980s that ancient ship, heavily armored and bristling with missiles and guns, was the most formidable surface combatant afloat. The M1 Abrams, a heavily updated 1970s design, is a lot more capable of standing up to Russian armor than the new Armored Gun System. Most of the capabilities of modern weapons systems are in their electronics, networking and fire control; those can be added quite cheaply to an older system. With money for defense likely to be scarce for the foreseeable future, it makes a lot more sense to add modern technology to older, but proven, platforms than take the costly risk of developing something completely new.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.