http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304384104579141982099354454Pentagon Toils to Build a Bomber on a BudgetFinancial Considerations Vital in Effort to Build Replacement for Aging B-52s and B-1s
By Julian E. Barnes, Nov. 3, 2013
When a military contractor showed Col. Chad Stevenson a design for the Air Force's top secret plane of the future, he began to worry.
"They were showing this really nice fold out bed, this nice refrigerator and microwave, a kind of lounge-provision area," Col. Stevenson recalled of the recent design.
The contractor, Lockheed Martin, LMT +0.71% didn't offer an estimate for such flying comforts. But Col. Stevenson imagined a publicity nightmare in the making: a $300,000 kitchenette as the latter-day symbol of Pentagon excess—the $600 toilet seat for the 21st century.
The kitchenette was killed.
Such financial considerations are vital to the Air Force's most important project today: building a new long-range bomber to replace the iconic and aging B-52s and B-1s that have come to represent America's domination of the sky.
It is the job of Col. Stevenson and a small group of Air Force colleagues to guard against improvidence and any untested technologies that could lead the grand project—expected to cost upwards of $55 billion—down the path the Pentagon often travels of cost-overruns and blown deadlines.
The plane of the future, dubbed the "Long-Range Strike Bomber," is the first weapon system to be designed in the new age of military austerity. Flight range, firepower and technological prowess are no longer the only features that matter. The Pentagon says it now gives equal weight to a far more pedestrian point: cost.
After a decade of rapidly rising defense spending, Congress capped the Pentagon budget, forcing nearly a trillion dollars in cuts by 2023.
Defense officials worry that those cuts could threaten many modernization programs, like the bomber.
The new bomber remains largely classified, with critical elements of range, bomb payload and overall look a closely guarded secret. But over the past six months, the Air Force offered The Wall Street Journal rare access to officers behind the project.
"We are trying to stick to a plan, for once," Col. Stevenson said. "Adding things means risk: risk of increasing costs, risk the plane won't be built."
Col. Stevenson has blocked everything from new cyberdefenses to advanced surveillance sensors, squaring off over upgrades against defense contractors and aides to the Defense secretary.
While his job is mostly budget cop, he also plays the role of a kind of crisis manager, on the lookout for any embellishments that might make the plane appear gold-plated.
In 2011, officials agreed to spend $550 million on each new bomber—a third of the cost of its predecessor, the B-2 bomber, which ended up with a price tag of $1.8 billion a plane.
Air Force leaders believe the new aircraft is critical to America's ability to project force in far-flung parts of the world, particularly in Asia, where China is investing heavily in its military and long distances between U.S. bases diminish the effectiveness of its short-range fighters.
The Air Force hopes to get the new nuclear-capable bomber airborne in the middle of the next decade—a daunting task considering the history of such ambitions.
Delays, technical glitches and cost overruns have beset nearly every Air Force project in the past three decades.
An F-22 fighter plane scheduled to take flight in 2002, for instance, wasn't finished until 2011, with fewer planes than planned and each costing hundreds of millions more than expected. None have been used in combat.
The oldest plane in the bomber fleet, the B-52, took flight in 1954, during the Cold War, followed by the B-1 and the latest, the batlike B-2, which hit the battlefield in 1998, after more than 20 years in research and development.
Most recently, the B-2 was deployed in the early days of the Libyan conflict, where it took out air defenses.
Aging and expensive to maintain now, only 16 B-2s are combat ready (at $135,000 per hour of flight), and many of the remaining 138 B-52 and B-1 bombers are heading for retirement.
The military fears being stuck with a small fleet, as many in the service believe future conflicts will require lightning quick responses, with the ability to strike newly identified targets in distant lands within hours while at the same time penetrating a bristling range of air-defenses.
For supporters of the new bomber, only a long-range stealthy aircraft offers that capability.
"In the future, what our president is going to need is options, options to project power anywhere in the world within hours," said Major Gen. Steve Kwast, who is charged with helping shape the Air Force's long-term strategy. "This Long-Range Strike Bomber is going to be that option the president can use when there are no other options."
The project is still at an early design stage, putting it in an especially risky spot during the coming negotiations over government spending.
There are no flying prototypes. Last month, Boeing Co. BA -1.11% and Lockheed Martin announced a joint bid for the new bomber, setting them up against Northrop Grumman Corp. NOC -0.48% , maker of the B-2.
The three firms declined to discuss their work on the bomber.
Some defense analysts and former officials believe the Air Force should put the future bomber resources into developing advanced unmanned drones, which have been used increasingly to strike distant targets in Africa and the Middle East. Others think the Air Force needs to invest more in aircraft that better support ground troops.
"The services are all wedded to tradition," said Mieke Eoyang, the director of the national security program at Third Way, a centrist think tank. "It is like the Army and its fondness for tanks. If you prioritize things that you don't use, you have less money for things you do."
The new bomber rises out of the ashes of an earlier program that struggled to get off the ground over the last decade. That program was canceled in 2009 by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who lamented that such weapons systems were "so complex that they take forever to build."
The Long-Range Strike Bomber began life in February 2011 when Mr. Gates signed off on the plane's new requirements, setting its range and payload (both classified) and requiring that it be able to evade radar and penetrate defended air space.
About $600 million has been spent so far to research the new plane and another $8.7 billion is set to be spent over the next five years, according to budget documents.
As Col. Stevenson dug into the new project, he also took on a larger mission: transforming the culture of the Air Force.
"If Ford or GM design a new car, they know how many they want to sell and they know much they want it cost. And they go back from there," Col. Stevenson said. "But the Air Force has not done that."
A 48-year old from South Dakota, Col. Stevenson arrives to work at 7 a.m. every morning in a green flight suit, putting in at least 12 hour days as he darts between meetings at the Pentagon and around Washington, D.C.
He was chosen for the job largely because, as a former B-2 pilot, he knows what pilots need—and don't.
It was with this eye that he looked askance when Lockheed Martin showed him the proposed crew lounge last year.
"This was a very nice crew rest area which would have made a lot of pilots very happy," he said.
There were debates over the kitchenette. Design contractors and some officers argued mishaps would decline if crews flying around the world for nearly two days could get proper rest, Air Force officials said.
In his 40-hour B-2 runs from Missouri to targets in Afghanistan, Col. Stevenson slept on a cot bought from a sporting-goods store and kept his two sandwiches, a bottle of water and a Mountain Dew in a 10-gallon cooler.
When Col. Stevenson sought approval to jettison the pilot lounge, he went to Gen. Kwast, his boss then at Air Combat Command, who backed his deputy.
"This is a plane to go to war in," Gen. Kwast told the colonel. "Crew comfort, while important, is not a necessity."
In an interview, Gen. Kwast said he wanted to "maintain an appetite suppressant" while encouraging smart innovation.
"If they were to bring us fusion power and could power the bomber for 100 hours on a banana peel, I would probably say 'yes' to that," he said.
Air Force officials struck down more than a dozen ideas from the defense industry, including new electronic support measures, the warning systems that detect enemy radar or cyberattacks. Instead, Col. Stevenson said, the Air Force has opted to go with existing systems.
"Technology that has been fielded is the only answer," the colonel said. "If it hasn't already been tested, we aren't interested."
The bomber will likely resemble the B-2, with its famously sleek black body and sweptback wings, Defense officials said. It will also run on an existing engine design, Air Force officials said.
While that means its range is likely to be similar to the 7,500 miles the B-2 can travel without refueling, it will save billions of dollars in development costs.
But Air Force officials note that the new bomber will exceed the B-2 in many ways. Stealth technology has advanced, as has the coordination of real-time targeting intelligence from satellites and other airplanes.
The cost obsession however has its downside, resulting in the elimination of requirements that some officials originally considered essential.
For instance, a concept that would have allowed the plane to be converted into a unmanned drone was shelved for now—too costly for the age of austerity, according to Air Force officials.
Still, some remain doubtful the bomber will remain stripped down. Thomas Christie, the Pentagon's former Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, predicts the defense industry will eventually convince the Air Force to include various new technologies.
"I have watched over the years as we load a system up with all the latest toys," said Mr. Christie, a critic of the Air Force's history of building planes. "The next thing you know, we are in trouble technically and with costs."
One heavily debated upgrade was a new reconnaissance sensor. A contractor presented the Air Force with the design late last year. On its face, the sensor held great appeal.
One of the military's new guiding principles is that new weapons shouldn't be designed for only one task or one style of warfare. The added sensor would essentially create a spy plane on top of a fighting machine.
But it would come at a cost: $25 million or more.
Four months of discussions ensued, with Col. Stevenson shuttling around the Pentagon, with stacks of papers detailing design plans, meeting senior officers and four-star generals.
Some argued that the sensor would save money later and make the plane more useful as a surveillance platform, officials said.
"There was a rich debate," said Gen. Kwast.
In the end, Col. Stevenson believed that the sensor would take the plane into unknown technological areas, ultimately the death of the last bomber.
The colonel came up with a compromise: no second sensor, but the design would leave enough space for one to be added later.
There were 15 meetings within the Pentagon alone, just to explain the decision and then another with congressional staffers.
The cost-cutting move brings its own complications, of course. To allow for later upgrades, the Air Force will adopt an "open architecture" for the plane's internal software. That would make adding new capabilities easier and less expensive. It would also add upfront costs and increase the risk of delays.
All the current bombers are used far beyond their original imagining. The B-2, for example, was designed to hit one or two targets in bombing runs, but today can carry 80 500-pound precision-guided bombs.
Building in flexibility, said Air Force officials, will ensure the plane will evolve over its decadeslong time in service.
Col. Stevenson said the new bomber will be very powerful. Still, he said, some people will inevitably be disappointed. "This plane," he said, "is not going to be all things to all people."
I'm a believer in bombers. Bombers are how you project power. Bombers give the Commander-in-Chief options during a crisis. Modern bombers can do everything from close air support (smart munitions and a JTAC on the ground, and it's great because unlike fighters, it can hang around all day), recon, anti-ship, or even just presence patrols for the sake of making a point (like when we flew our B-52s through China's "air defense zone" over some disputed islands recently).
Fighters are versatile. They're like small ships in the Navy. But bombers are like carriers or SSBNs: they're the big stick, the tool in the strategic toolbox, and for way too long they've taken a sideline (especially since the end of the Cold War). If I could cut the number of USAF F-35s in half or more to get twice as many new bombers, I'd do it. If I could scrap the F-35 and put ALL of that money to a new bomber, I might just do it.
That's why I'm not in charge, though. I just want to do things without shuffling between a bazillion committee meetings.