The United States is getting a brand-new bomber, called the B-21, for the first time since the 1990s. That’s normally the sort of thing defense-minded types like to hear, but U.S. Air Force programs of the past few decades have a tendency to go completely off the rails. These are the questions that the American government will have to answer if it doesn’t want everything to fall apart.
Northrop Grumman’s B-21, which will receive a proper name in the fall, is billed as the vital future of an aging and ancient bomber force. That’s not wrong. The youngest B-2 bombers the Air Force flies are old enough to vote, and the oldest B-52 bombers have served for over half a century.
To maintain its bomber wing, the Air Force expects to order at least 100 of the long range strike bombers, priced at roughly $560 million each. This is an expensive program, and it comes shortly after the Air Force’s fighter modernization program, where an attempt at sharing a similar airframe between the Air Force, Navy, and Marines left citizens footing the over $1 trillion bill for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
It is, despite the protestation of the New York Times, likely too late to halt the F-35 program. The planes are already rolling out of factories. The fighters the F-35 is going to replace are nearing the end of their effective lifespan, and will be retired soon enough. The most expensive fighter program in history is finally producing airplanes for America.
These are not, by most measures, good airplanes. The ejection seat poses a danger to lighter pilots. It can’t run on fuel that’s too warm. In early tests, an F-35 itself caught fire. Sometimes the plane’s computers crash and need to be rebooted mid-air. It is a flawed aircraft, and one that the Pentagon is stuck with for an expected lifespan of up to 55 years.
The F-35 didn’t have to be as much of an expensive disaster as it is. The Joint Strike Fighter program began in late 1996, with the contract awarded to Lockheed in 2001. A report on the program in 2002 from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, noted:
Civilian leaders must guard against rival programs cutting into the resources and political support that will be needed to see the F-35 project through to completion. They must do so by engendering support for the F-35 on its merits, while resisting the temptation to build political support by turning the JSF into a jobs program in disguise. Finally, defense planners must remain focused on the overarching goal of transforming the nation’s defenses to deal with the likely threats in the 21st century and beyond.
By promising everything, the F-35 was hobbled by expectations and snuffed out alternatives. If Congress rallied behind the F-35, it was as much for the jobs the plane would bring as it was because they had no alternative programs to look to. The report then ultimately recommending the plane, saying it had so far avoided the pitfalls of previous defense boondoggles.
Since then, it hasn’t. The Congressional Budget Office considered alternatives to the F-35 in 2009, including canceling the program. (Another government report from 2009 notes that estimates of alternatives aren’t particularly robust, by failing to take into account the possibility that technology might not work as promised).
Inertia partially explains why that didn’t happen. Another reason might be that the F-35 is assembled in 45 states, with at least 130,000 people employed in its production in 2013, and no member of Congress wants to cancel a plane that’s built in so many districts. Whatever window there was for leveling criticism at the F-35 program that would change it is long since passed.
That means now is the time to ask often, and ask loudly, questions about the development of the B-21. The first part of the contract, already awarded, is worth over $21 billion, and there are estimates that the total could easily rise to at least $80 billion. And that is what we know, that is public. The Air Force began developing a new bomber in 2004, called the Next Generation Bomber. That program was canceled in 2009, but in 2011 the Air Force started funding the Long Range Strike Bomber, which became the B-21. Much of the development of the bomber took place in secret, before the design was revealed to the public.
Here are three big questions we should ask about the B-21 while it’s still in development, so that it doesn’t become another flying albatross like the F-35.
The surest sign that a plane is built to survive Congress more than battle is a distributed manufacturing base. It’s fair to expect some distribution. Building a plane in 30 or more places is a hedge against cancellation.
In an ideal world, the plane would be able to make the case on its own. There’s a thin line between selling the plane as an earmark and jobs program across the country, and developing it as a tool that the Pentagon needs for future wars. It’s understandable that Northrop Grumman would want their plane to be as embedded with Congress as possible, but the spreading out the construction introduces new places for error, and insulates projects good and bad.
An ancient B-52 crashed in Guam just last week. The case for a new bomber should be simple, without purchasing Congress in the process.
The B-21 is supposed to be “optionally manned,” which means it can work like a drone when it doesn’t have a crew on board. That software is complex, and it will be built on top of sophisticated sensors and sensor processing software.
We can expect updates, but this is something that should already be in place in a functioning form. It will take time to find bugs when the planes are built and tested, but we should expect updates to mention the software’s progress, as well as information about engines and other components.
There aren’t a lot of great counter-examples in recent defense acquisition. The stealthy F-22 seems to have gone through some software troubles in development, but ones that were mostly resolved during production. (Most famously, the computers crashed when crossing the International Date Line.
The USS Zumwalt destroyer, using off-the-shelf hardware and Linux, seems relatively free of software troubles, though we should wait until it enters service to see how bug-free that software really is. A few problems in development are fine. Multiple stories across multiple years of development would be a bad sign.
The B-21 is a stealth bomber, and likely one that will be able to carry nuclear weapons. Because both stealth and nuclear secrets are important to how it works, it’s easy to see why the Air Force is running the program under such a high degree of secrecy. We the public won’t get all the details as they’re made available, but Congressional oversight will get some of them. Congress should use its behind-closed-door hearings on the B-21 to make sure that what is kept secret is crucial to how it works, and that the acquisition program isn’t just keeping facts from the public because it can.
The B-2 was similarly developed in under an umbrella secrecy, though the program was revealed by the Carter administration in 1980. Yet the overarching secrecy of the B-21 development seems as much a marketing stunt as a security concern. Other stealth projects, from the F-22 to the F-35 to the Zumwalt, revealed the shapes of their vehicles, in concept and in prototype.
The B-21, instead, exists in the public eye as only a shape under a sheet or a rough rendering with a striking similarity to the B-2. Conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute made a case for keeping the entire project under wraps so that Congress can’t mess up a good thing, but that places a tremendous amount of trust in the Air Force and the contractor to act in America’s best interest—and to do so behind closed doors.
These are all questions about how the B-21 is proceeding, and if it’s meeting the standards we as a nation should expect from our major defense projects. They assume a few major points: that nuclear-capable bombers are necessary, they there’s a role for them in either conventional war or deterrence that isn’t already provided by existing nuclear weapons and strike aircraft, and that the investment they require, as a highly advanced individual piece of technology, makes sense in the world of tomorrow.
America has, after all, spent the past 14 years fighting insurgencies with bombers built to defeat Soviets in Europe instead dropping precision bombs on Toyotas with machine guns. The B-2, the B-21’s most immediate ancestor, had its production run cut short because Congress didn’t see the point of a highly advanced stealth bomber while Russia’s power was imploding.
Russia and China are both significantly stronger in 2016 than they were in 1997 when the first B-2s entered the Air Force. Stealth technology has advanced since then, as have anti-stealth radars and missiles, which mean American bombers could someday have to attack countries with better defenses than any encountered so far this century. But it doesn’t mean that American bombers will necessarily make sense against Russia and China, which still have nuclear arsenals that can deter attacks, just like they did throughout the Cold War.
If the B-21 wants to go before Congress and pass into full existence, it needs to make the case that it not only won’t repeat the flaws of the F-35, but that it will serve genuine needs of American security.
Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense journalist. His work regularly appears at Popular Science, and he edits even nerdier stories at Grand Blog Tarkin. He is as interested in the future of war as he is uninterested in actually calling them UAVs, not drones.