Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2014
In July, the US Air Force issued a request for proposals for its latest nuclear weapons delivery system, the long-range strike bomber (LRS-B), and officials expect to award a contract for the project next spring. The Pentagon has been secretive about the details of its plans for the aircraft, nicknamed the “China Bomber” because of its potential for defending US economic interests in the South China Sea. According to an Air Force statement, “The new bomber will be a long-range, air-refuelable, highly survivable aircraft with significant nuclear and conventional stand-off and direct-attack weapons payload.”
Each of the 80-100 warplanes the Air Force plans to purchase is expected to cost $550 million, not including development costs, bringing the price tag for the program to $55 billion. According to calculations by defense analysts, that cost will rise to $81 billion with research and development included. If these costs estimates are accurate, the cost of each LRS-B will still come in lower than that of its predecessor, the B-2 bomber, each of which cost taxpayers $2 billion.
Former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter justified the massive expenditures for the new bombers because the “B-2 is an older airplane that’s getting expensive [to maintain]” and “it’s not as stealthy as we’re now capable of making aircraft.” The US Air Force’s nuclear-capable bomber fleet currently includes 76 of the far older B-52s and 20 B-2s, which became operational in 2003. The LRS-B is expected to be ready by the mid-2020s and could be designed to “enable future unmanned capability.”
A June 2014 briefing by the Congressional Research Service sheds light on the strategic purpose of the project. Noting that “over 80% of crude oil supplies to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan flow through the South China Sea,” the report says, “Long-range bombers … could actively and passively maintain situational awareness of the vast Asia-Pacific maritime region and possibly keep in check any potential adversary looking to threaten the United States and its allies’ access to the Asia-Pacific’s commons.”
Indeed, when President Obama first took office in 2009, his defense secretary put a halt to initial plans for the project, citing the Air Force’s long history of massive overruns for bombers. However, once concerns arose about China’s military and advances in anti-aircraft defense systems, the Obama administration decided to push the project, despite the budget sequestration that called for a $500 billion reduction in military spending over the next nine years.
A partnership between major weapons contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing is expected to bid on the $81 billion contract against Northrup, which was just awarded up to $9.9 billion for a 10-year “indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity” maintenance contract on the B-2 bombers it sold the Air Force a decade ago. States with bomber manufacturing infrastructures are courting the industry giants with tax break incentives, with California promising Lockheed a $420 million break for locating the project within its borders.
— Congressional Research Service, June 4, DefenseNews.com, June 13, DefenseOne, July 9, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 20, 2014; Bloomberg, Dec. 5; 2013. — ASP