It is known that the Air Force plans to buy 80-100 strike aircraft at a cost of $550 million each with initial fielding in 2025.
1. It will have an unrefueled range of over 5,000 nautical miles. The new bomber must be able to reach targets located deep in the interior of Russia and China.
2. It will carry less payload than previous bombers. The cost of a bomber rises roughly in proportion to the size of its payload, so the imposition of a firm unit cost ceiling will tend to drive designs toward payloads much smaller than the 40,000 pounds on the very pricey B-2, the only stealthy long-range bomber currently in operation. But even at half the payload of the B-2, the LRS-B could still destroy dozens of different targets in a single flight (“sortie”) due to the advent of lightweight smart bombs.
Boeing and Lockheed delivered over 300 military aircraft last year, including some of the stealthiest fighters in the world; Northrop Grumman delivered nine aircraft, none of them stealthy. Boeing is the likely winner of the LRSB contract. Above is the Boeing -Lockheed design concept for the long range strike bomber.
3. It will cost more than $550 million per plane. As Jason Sherman of InsideDefense.com pointed out last week, the Air Force’s stated goal of paying no more than $550 million per bomber is expressed in fiscal 2010 dollars. Even if there is no real cost growth, the price-tag in then-year (inflated) dollars will be more like $700 million. And some cost growth is nearly inevitable when integrating a clean-sheet design that the Air Force describes as “cutting-edge.”
4. It won’t contain breakthrough technologies. The B-2 bomber developed by a Northrop-Boeing team during the Cold War was a revolutionary aircraft designed to hunt down Russian mobile missile launchers in the midst of a nuclear war. In order to accomplish that task, it incorporated a host of innovations that made the plane horrendously expensive to build and operate.
5. It won’t be supersonic. Although there are some warfighting scenarios in which being able to exceed the speed of sound might be useful, aircraft traveling at that speed generate heat and acoustic signatures that compromise stealth.
6. It won’t be unmanned. The Air Force’s fiscal 2016 budget summary describes the Long-Range Strike Bomber as “nuclear capable” and “optionally manned,” but don’t count on either of those features being available the day the plane debuts. Nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2s will remain in the fleet for many years after 2025, and any bombers with the ability to deliver nuclear weapons must be counted against arms-control limits. As for the optionally-manned feature, it’s hard to see what value there would be in penetrating hostile air space without human pilots on board to make snap decisions about targeting options or the need to take evasive action.
9. There will be more than a hundred. The Air Force says it wants 80-100 Long-Range Strike Bombers, but by the time that number of planes is produced, it will be contemplating retirement of all the bombers currently in its fleet. Those bombers are already facing a host of age-related maladies such as metal fatigue, corrosion and parts obsolescence