CRS InsightsBudget Highlight: Air Force Long Range Strike Bomber
In early July, the U.S. Air Force is expected to issue a Request for Proposals to design, develop, and build a fleet of 80-100 new long-range strike systems to be fielded in the mid-2020s. Although long-range strike systems are typically thought of as bomber aircraft, the more general description is used because it is not yet clear whether the proposed Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) is to be a single platform or a group of smaller systems working in concert.
Most of the current U.S. bomber fleet is composed of 76 B-52 Stratofortresses, which average 50 years in age, and whose ability to penetrate modern air-defense systems is increasingly challenged. The 80-100 LRS-Bs would replace the B-52s and likely some of the 63 B-1s still in service (with an average age of 28 years.) The B-52s and B-1s are currently projected to remain in service through 2040, which would be consistent with a mid-2020s introduction of the first LRS-Bs.
The Long Range Strike Bomber program began in FY2012, replacing the Air Force Next Generation Bomber program, an earlier effort to develop a manned bomber. While it will initially be deployed as a manned aircraft, LRS-B could eventually become optionally manned, with the aircraft operated remotely for some operations. Air Force officials have stated that LRS-B would be manned for nuclear missions.
The RFP may be less than it seems, however. As Figure 1 shows, the projected LRS-B budget increases more than 10-fold in the current Future Years Defense Program, from $258.7 million in FY2013 to $3,451.2 million in FY2019. Aviation analysts and industry officials confirm CRS's assessment that this funding stream resembles a production program more than a typical development profile. This may indicate that significant LRS-B development has already been completed, presumably in classified budgets. Such prior development would also help explain how the Air Force intends to get the system from a Request for Proposals to initial operational capability in about 10 years, when equally or less-complicated systems like the F-22 and F-35 have taken more than 20.
Source: DOD budget submissions for FY2014 and FY2015.
If there has in fact been considerable prior development, the Air Force will be challenged to construct a truly competitive RFP. Two competitors have declared an interest in the program: a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Although Northrop is reportedly building a large, classified UAV, whichever competitor may have done the bulk of any such preliminary LRS-B development is likely to have an advantage in the production contract.
The Air Force has pegged the new bomber's price tag at $550 million each, excluding development (i.e., the cost of building each at full-rate production, known as "unit recurring flyaway" cost). While standing by that cost, Air Force officials have observed that capping the cost now or in the future is likely to result in limiting some of the LRS-B's capabilities or restricting the quantity produced. These tradeoffs are typical of a budget-constrained development program. Some analysts indicate that including development, each LRS-B could cost $810 million. These figures appear not to include any prior classified funding.
Even at the lower estimate, development and funding of LRS-B will take up a substantial portion of the bomber budget, which also includes modernization and update programs for the existing fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s in the coming years. This could pose a particular challenge if LRS-B development proves more expensive than projected, as is not uncommon in aircraft programs. Given a constrained budget topline, growth in LRS-B could put pressure on maintaining and improving legacy bomber fleets. This maintenance is required to ensure today's bombers remain effective and to avoid a capability gap until LRS-B comes along.
CRS will continue to follow this program, and expects to issue an "In Focus" paper and eventually a full report following publication of the RFP.