In an instant, four tons of steel and explosives slammed into the 522-foot-long warship Schenectady, blowing it apart in a cataclysm of smoke, dust and sound. Overhead, a pair of U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52 bombers orbited, one of them having just released four laser-guided bombs. The huge, eight-engine warplanes had flown directly from Louisiana to attack the decommissioned Navy landing ship as part of an exercise near Hawaii on Nov. 23, 2004.
Schenectady’s dramatic destruction marked a turning point in the Pentagon’s approach to aerial warfare, and led directly to one of the flying branch’s riskiest-ever investments. The sinking of the Schenectady by the Air Force was meant to prove to the flying branch’s reluctant Pentagon masters that bombers could play an important role in a major ocean battle against China and its gigantic navy. In underscoring bombers’ usefulness, the Hawaii demonstration was also part of the Air Force’s efforts to get the Defense Department to sign off on a new bomber program. Two years later, the Air Force got its wish when the Pentagon finally gave the go-ahead for the so-called “Next-Generation Bomber.”
But that program foundered and was cancelled three years later. After a change in leadership in the Defense Department, the Air Force once more pushed for a new bomber initiative — and, again, got it. This year the Pentagon launched a potentially $55-billion effort to build a better bomber, one capable of replacing the venerable B-52 and preserving the long-range, heavy strike prowess the Air Force demonstrated that day off Hawaii eight years ago.
The “Long-Range Strike Bomber” program is a subject of great concern inside the Pentagon, and the topic of my latest investigative feature for the Center for Public Integrity. (The Atlantic also has a version of my story.) Even more than the Air Force’s notoriously expensive stealth fighters, bombers are susceptible to program delays, budget overruns, cutbacks and skyrocketing costs. For half a century, bombers have been a symbol of the Air Force’s overwhelming firepower … and a poster child for Pentagon waste.
If history is any judge, the development and production of up to 100 new Long-Range Strike Bombers has a high probability of ending disastrously. Every time the Air Force has tried to buy a new heavy warplane to replace the 1960s-vintage B-52, it has ended up spending tens of billions of dollars for a dwindling number of aircraft.
In the ’50s and ’60s the Air Force built nearly 800 B-52s for just $70 million apiece in today’s dollars. The first bomber meant to replace the B-52, the ’80s-vintage swing-wing B-1, ended up costing more than $200 million per plane. The third effort, the stealthy B-2 (pictured), shattered cost records with its eye-watering $3-billion-a-pop unit price. Today the Air Force possesses just 60 B-1s and 20 B-2s. The 70 surviving B-52s still form the backbone of the bomber fleet, more than 50 years after they entered service. All three bomber types have been heavily involved in aerial campaigns over Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in the past 15 years.
Even so, the Air Force’s inability to replace the B-52 at reasonable cost led the Pentagon at one time to essentially abandon bomber development. As recently as 1999, the Defense Department had no plans to buy a new bomber before 2037. But the Air Force, nervously observing the rapid growth of the Chinese military, believed it needed a new bomber to stay ahead in the Pacific. The orchestrated destruction of the Schenectady was part of the Air Force-led campaign that helped convince the Pentagon that bombers were critical to winning any future air war against China. Sinking the old Navy ship was meant to prove that the Air Force could defeat a Chinese invasion fleet steaming towards Taiwan, according to retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who helped organize the 2004 demonstration.
Today Deptula is part of a group of current and retired senior officers who have spoken out on behalf of Air Force bombers. “They allow you to project power globally without projecting vulnerability,” Deptula says of the heavy warplanes. In other words, bombers can deliver massive firepower without the need to deploy a big, vulnerable ground force.
Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006, was convinced by the bomber advocates’ arguments and gave the flying branch permission to develop the so-called “Next-Generation Bomber.” But that new plane design quickly grew to be as complex — and potentially as expensive — as the $3-billion-a-copy B-2. Robert Gates, who took over from the disgraced Rumsfeld, was aghast. “It makes little sense to pursue a future bomber – a prospective B-3, if you will – in a way that repeats [the B-2's] history,” Gates said. In 2009 he cancelled the Next-Generation Bomber. Gates advised the Air Force to try again with a more affordable design.
The air service followed Gates’ advice, but waited until the recalcitrant Pentagon chief and his closest advisers, including Marine general and noted bomber skeptic James Cartwright, retired in mid-2011. The Air Force found Gates’ successor Leon Panetta more amenable to a potentially pricey new bomber program. With the Pentagon on board, the Air Force also lobbied Congress for support, and in the 2012 defense budget legislators ponied up $297 million to start work on the Long Range Strike Bomber’s blueprints. That sum was $100 million more than the Air Force originally requested in its 2012 budget proposal. In essence, Congress is doubling down on the Air Force’s risky bomber bet.
Mindful of its poor track record in developing bombers and still stinging from Gates’ public rebuke, the Air Force has vowed the Long-Range Strike Bomber will be different than previous models. “We are … cautious,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said. “Cautious not to repeat the painful experience of previous Air Force bomber programs.” The Pentagon has promised to cancel the new bomber again if projected development and purchase costs exceed $55 billion. To keep costs down, the Air Force says it’s using only existing hardware in the new warplane. Nothing will be invented from scratch, like it was for the cutting-edge B-1 and B-2.
But there are good reasons to be very, very skeptical of the Air Force’s assurances. For in addition to possessing traditional attributes such as long range and heavy payload, the flying branch wants the Long-Range Strike Bomber to include an optional robotic mode. With the flip of a switch, the new plane should be able to transform from a normal manned aircraft to one that can be flown remotely by crews on the ground.
That’s meant to give the bomber the best attributes of a killer drone (long endurance, no risk to aircrews) and a manned warplane (greater flexibility and the ability to respond to a fast-acting enemy). But “optional manning,” as it’s known, has never been attempted on such a large scale before. It represents a big unknown in a program the Air Force insists will rely only on well-understood technologies.
“The new bomber will be both less expensive and more capable than its predecessor,” Deptula says. If he’s right, the Air Force could begin re-equipping with Long-Range Strike Bombers in around 10 years, sustaining for decades the promise of massive, long-range firepower that those ancient B-52s demonstrated near Hawaii that day eight years ago. If he’s wrong, then the historical trend will continue. The Air Force will spend more and more on new bombers, with less and less to show for it....
By Phil Radford
SYDNEY - The world's biggest international defense project, the United States-designed F-35 strike-fighter aircraft, was put on probation by international partners at a formal meeting held this month in Sydney, Australia.
Responding to the latest in a series of cost increases and delivery delays, representatives from the Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom have all threatened to pull out of the project unless the Pentagon and lead private contractor Lockheed Martin can deliver the fighter plane more quickly and cheaply.
The trouble started on February 13 when the US Department of Defense's Comptroller released detailed projections of future Pentagon spending which revealed cuts in planned US purchases of the F-35 fighter as well as related cost increases in the fiscal period spanning 2013- 17.
The 2012 price of the US Air Force version of the F-35 aircraft is almost US$197 million, three times the plane's original projected cost. By postponing the ramp up to mass production, the Pentagon in effect confirmed that the F-35 will not be available in the near-term at a cost allies are willing to pay.
Within days, the Canadian government called an unprecedented meeting of F-35 partners at its embassy in Washington to organize a collective response. The aircraft is the most expensive procurement project on the defense budget books of most project participants. Together the eight countries had committed to purchase over 700 of the fighter planes.
Delivery delays, meanwhile, mean the countries' air forces will face yawning gaps in combat capability. Canada needs new aircraft by 2016, while Australia wanted its first 14 of the fighter planes by 2014. The United Kingdom desperately needs a naval version of the F-35 for its two 60,000 ton aircraft carriers due to enter service in 2016 and 2018.
Before the Sydney meeting, Canadian Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino underscored the allies' bottom line. "We have not as yet discounted the possibility of backing out of the program," he said, adding in case the point of the meeting was missed, "none of the partners have".
The plane's wider export prospects are also under threat. The F-35's first Asian customer, Japan, warned on February 29 that cost increases or delays might force Tokyo to cancel its contract for 42 aircraft. The multi-billion dollar deal was signed just three months previously.
More broadly, the US's ability to turn its pre-eminence in military technology into lucrative, long-term exports and diplomatic leverage is also at stake. Faced with cost increases, continued delays and technology risks, US strategic allies have started to investigate cheaper, more reliable alternatives, and there is little the cash-strapped US government can do to stop them.
Arm in arm
Back in 2001- 2, the allure of the F-35 "fifth-generation" fighter proved irresistible to many US allies. It would possess high resolution sensors and secure high-capacity data links so pilots could fight armed with an exceptional awareness of the situation around them, while "data fusion" features would make that information easy to comprehend. The plane's stealthy look would produce a tiny radar signature that increased survivability in combat situations.
Many air force chiefs, almost all of them ex-fast-jet pilots, pronounced the F-35 the best fighter of the future. Prospective customers were promised the F-35 would also be economical, with lower maintenance costs than existing aircraft.
For the US, inviting allies to collaborate on F-35 development looked like a neat way to cement its position at the apex of the global defense industry. The collaborative arrangement would help the US to defray development costs, increase export orders and ultimately make allied air forces more useful in US-led operations. It would also subtly make those air forces dependent on the US for support and upgrades because the US would retain the source code required to upgrade the software the plane needed to fly.
What hooked allies most apparently was the commercial opportunity. The Canadian government, for example, which joined the F-35 project in 2002, estimated that by 2010 its C$168 million development contribution had led to C$350 million of contracts from Lockheed Martin. This 2:1 return on investment boosted national capabilities in advanced composites and helped fund research laboratories and universities. (The US and Canadian dollars are currently at parity; all amounts here are in US dollars unless otherwise stated.)
With the US committing to purchasing 2,443 aircraft, plus 700 from the allies and perhaps another 2,000 in exports to non-partner countries, allies eyed a commercial bonanza that would simultaneously propel local technology firms into world-class players once full-scale production began.
Flash forward 10 years, and the plane is still six years away from full-scale production. In its latest report, released last week, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified deficiencies in the plane's fifth-generation capabilities, including the helmet-mounted display which cannot "fuse" data.
More worrying is the backlog in software coding. The F-35 needs an estimated 24 million lines of code to become operational, including 9.5 million on-board the aircraft. This is six times as much software as on the F/A-18 Hornet, and three times more than the F-22. The GAO reports that "testing of the most complex software and advanced capabilities [is] still in the future," while only "four percent of the aircraft mission system for full combat capability has been verified".
Partly as a result, the flight tests are approximately five years behind schedule. A fully integrated F-35 won't now begin testing until 2015 at the earliest, coinciding with when allies had expected deliveries to have already commenced. Moreover, a Department of Defense (DOD) presentation that accompanied the release of budget figures shows that F-35 funding for testing will now continue up to 2018, which implies full-rate aircraft production will only ramp up at the end of the decade.
But what has the allies more trapped is the cost. Last month, the US DOD's fiscal year 2013 figures showed it will purchase 19 fighters for its air force this year at a unit cost of $197 million, nearly three times higher than the 2001 projected cost of $69 million per plane. This makes the F-35 hopelessly expensive compared to the only practical alternatives available on the international market: $67 million for an F/A-18 Super Hornet; $87-90 million for a Dassault Rafale; and approximately $110-120 million for a Eurofighter Typhoon. 
Currently, the Pentagon projects a decline in F-35 unit costs as production ramps up and economies of scale kick in: $171 million for each fighter next year, $140 million the year after, and $121 million in 2016, when it plans to buy 70 aircraft.
The date at which the plane becomes economical, meanwhile, recedes into the future. The F-35 was easily the biggest casualty in the US defense budget announced last month, suffering $15.1 billion of cuts out of total defense program reductions of $97 billion.
Besides funding constraints, the budget plan specifically cited "changing departmental priorities" as a reason for the cuts, which indicates waning support for F-35 in the Pentagon, while interest and investment in unmanned drones and cyber warfare builds. The Pentagon has few reasons to rush into full-scale F-35 production while costs remain high and other fighter production lines remain open - and the allies know know this.
Even if the Pentagon sticks to its promises, the price may not drop by much. In its March 20 report, the GAO repeated an earlier ominous warning, that "... the program has not yet demonstrated ... manufacturing processes capable of efficient production". That means the GAO does not believe that Lockheed Martin's projected economies of scale are based in fact. Statistical analysis of the five-year costs submitted to the GAO in 2011 reveal a very modest correlation between increases in aircraft orders and reductions in unit costs. Three-year figures presented by the Pentagon this February reveal no correlation at all. 
The most thorough independent analysis comes from Canada, where the federal government's disinclination to reveal data on F-35 costs helped precipitate a general election last May. There, the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated the likely cost at C$148-C$163 million before the latest Pentagon cuts. This compares to the C$75 million price tag that the Canadian government is now publically committed.
Since the allies cannot influence the basic dynamics of the F-35 program, their only reaction to date has been to delay orders and hope for the best. The UK, panicking over which version will prove less costly and embarrassing for its carriers, has reduced its 138-plane order to an unspecified number.
In March 2011, Turkey put its 100-plane order on hold indefinitely, apparently in response to a US refusal to share source codes. After learning of the cost increases, the Netherlands postponed making a definite order until 2014, while on February 9 Italy's newfound fiscal sobriety saw projected orders drop from 131 to 90.
The eject-seat option is for allies to write off their development costs and open their fighter procurements to an open competition, pitting the F-35 against the Typhoon, Rafale and Super Hornet. This is what the Canadian opposition parties have pledged to do, even though it means facing down two powerful constituents: top air force officers who can marshal persuasive facts behind professional opinions; and domestic companies, such as Australia's Quickstep, who have invested in large plant expansions in anticipation of multi-billion dollar contracts related to the F-35.
Revolution in time
If the allies can keep older aircraft in the skies a few more years and avoid making hard commitments, progress may yet resolve their dilemma. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) of which they form a part are already displacing manned jets from reconnaissance and some strike roles.
According to The Economist (October 2011), unmanned American UAS now fly more hours than manned strike aircraft, and more US pilots are being trained to fly them than their manned equivalents.
Uncomfortably for F-35 proponents, UAS already combine all the elements of fifth-generation fighters but in a more economical form. BAE System's Taranis and Northrop Grumman's X-47 are highly stealthy, and the former is experimenting with drones that have no moveable surfaces at all, further reducing radar signatures.
UAS data fusion, meanwhile, happens on the ground among teams of pilots and operators who can specialize in specific flying, monitoring and combat functions. Without pilots, or the equipment they need to fight, breathe, eject, navigate, or fight, UAVs are smaller, lighter and cheaper. And despite the professional affinity for manned flight, combat pilots may soon concede the skies.
UAVs will be fought centrally from ground-based or ship-situated operations centers, where ground and air-space information is filtered, honed and acted upon by specialized teams to create tactical advantages that airborne pilots cannot individually match or master. Pilots will soon ponder how many coordinated, missile-armed UAVs to have in the sky around them.
What will likely grab politicians' interest is the radically shorter development cycle for UAS, such that new ideas fly in months not decades. Modular approaches to UAV construction together with miniaturized sensor suites will allow aerospace companies to quickly mix and match new UAV platforms with novel weapons and sensors.
New capabilities will be genuinely new. Procurement staff will not find themselves hostage to long, risky development programs; they can simply tell companies to experiment wildly with new combinations, fight competitive procurement battles in real, aerial dogfights, and only then spend money on the winners.
Historically, militaries do not abandon orthodox technology until a decisive engagement proves a new point. But without fail the determining factor is always cost. During World War II, expensive battleships were overwhelmed by swarms of cheap aircraft carrying cheap bombs or torpedos. In exactly the same way, the F-35 will be overwhelmed by cheap drones carrying cheap missiles, before or after it becomes operational.
If the allies can hold their nerve, the F-35's troubles and the Pentagon's delays may yet save them from making the most expensive mistake of their own defense forces' lives.
1. Export prices of combat aircraft are exceptionally hard to judge because they are subject to numerous variables (e.g., grades of sensors, support levels) and commercial sensitivity. These estimates are taken from i) DoD FY 2013 Navy estimates; ii) Public figures released following Dassault's 'preferred bidder' win in the Indian Air Force competition in January 2012; iii) the 2009 price paid by the German Air Force for its 'Tranche III' Typhoons. All figures calculated from producers' currency using exchange rates on March 26, 2012.
2. For example, according to GAO figures, a 26% increase in F-35 A orders in 2013 leads to a 15% decrease in unit costs, while a 67% increase in orders the following year leads to a broadly similar 18% decrease in unit costs. For 2015 and 2016, the decrease in unit costs is calculated to be the same despite 2016 accounting for a much larger jump in numbers than 2015. According to DoD FY 2013 estimates, unit costs of the F-35C fall between 2011 and 2013 despite the number ordered dropping from seven to four, while the unit costs of F-35 B rise despite numbers ordered rising from three to six. (includes previous year's advance procurements.)
Rick Montgomery | The Kansas City Star
Say you own a 20-year-old car and intend to drive it beyond the year 2050. It will need some fixing.
A challenge similar to that continually faces Whiteman Air Force Base, home to the B-2 stealth bomber. Many aircraft parts made in the 1980s, when the first of 21 B-2s rolled out of a Northrop Grumman Corp. hangar, are as obsolete today as the floppy disk.
Yet the plan is to keep those bat-winged bombers flying, and eluding the latest in radar technology, until 2058.
The Pentagon is moving forward with a $2 billion, 10-year effort to modernize the fleet’s defensive capabilities. Digital equipment will replace analog, antennas will be upgraded, communication systems and pilot displays will be enhanced — all needed to address “emerging and proliferating 21st century ground and airborne threats,” according to an Air Force report last year to Congress.
Col. Rob Spalding of Whiteman’s 509th Bomb Wing called the coming enhancements “the biggest and most complex update of the B-2 in its history.”
Washington’s commitment to the B-2 is a no-brainer, experts say, given the plane’s lethal legacy. It has been involved in every combat action since NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo War.
“The B-2 is a door opener,” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank on weapons systems. “It has the unique ability to fly unescorted into hostile airspace and blow up a lot of stuff — without us first having to take out the other guy’s air defenses.”
Maintaining the fleet — now down to 20, following the wreck of a B-2 flying out of a Guam air base into heavy rain in 2008 — is job one at Missouri’s Whiteman. Scheduled overhauls happen every seven years, and replacement parts are increasingly difficult to find, Spalding said.
In some instances, technicians at the base have devised their own remedies to keep the bomber current with changing technologies.
Case in point: Avionics Plug and Play, or AP2.
It is an email and communications system that is separate from the aircraft’s operational backbone. This is a huge cost-saver, Spalding said, because any fiddling with the bomber’s core functions requires years of research and testing.
AP2 allows commanders on the ground to shoot coordinates and revised flight plans to the B-2’s two-person crew. Rather than relying on a laptop that once swiveled on a stand between the pilot seats, the new system puts computer screens at the shoulder of each flyer. And it can be easily upgraded as more sophisticated technologies emerge, said Spalding, operations group commander for the 509th.
“We designed it ourselves,” he said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. We saw the need and went out and did it.”
Last month, Northrup Grumman awarded a contract to BAE Systems to replace 30-year-od analogue electronics with digital support systems on all B-2s. The size of the contract was not disclosed, and a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman said sensitive specifics about the planned upgrades would not be divulged.
A BAE executive said in a press release the new electronics will help give the fleet “exceptional situational awareness to reach its targets through highly developed, increasingly sophisticated enemy defenses.”
It’s not such a reach to imagine keeping the B-2s up to date and operational for decades to come, said expert Pike: “We did it with the B-52.”
Many of those bigger bombers were in active service before their crews were born.
“We’re talking about a low-mileage aircraft,” he said, with the typical B-2 accumulating fewer than 5,000 flying hours since birth.
“The notion of the thing getting worn out due to airframe stress, you don’t really need to worry about.”
Then again, Lockheed’s F-117 — a stealth fighter on flight lines since the early 1980s — was phased out of active service by the Air Force beginning in 2007. The fighter’s capabilities were questioned when one was spotted and shot down during the Kosovo conflict, its radar signature compromised with bomb bay doors opened.
The F-117 airframe required substantial maintenance and eventually was superseded by streamlined shapes designed by computers.
Spalding said no B-2s were currently in forward locations such as Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean atoll from which bombers launched attacks on enemy targets in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Air Force has $560 million in its present five-year spending plan for modernizing the B-2’s defense-management system, according to InsideDefense.com.
The bomber currently is the only aircraft capable of carrying a super-bunker buster in development — the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP. The Pentagon considers the MOP crucial to defense capabilities against hardened, deeply buried targets.
Few in Washington appear inclined to neglect “The Plane That Would Bomb Iran,” as The Atlantic Monthly once called the B-2. Believed to have significantly enhanced their air defenses and radar systems in recent years, Iranian officials last month crowed of successfully identifying and repelling mock fighter jets during four days of war games.