I explained previously that the US places a premium on having a long-range bomber in inventory, and how big that premium can be. With the B-2, the costs of bomber programs effectively ‘hit the wall’, exceeding the tolerance of the acquisition system. Any further cost growth will be unacceptable—even the wildly optimistic projection of US$550 million per aircraft for the new LRS-B is pretty steep.
Like any other expensive purchase, there are questions to ask before committing. Is this function useful? If so, are there cheaper ways? We shouldn’t put too much weight on the experience of the past 15 years against adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan with little in the way of advanced air defence. The LRS-B represents massive overkill in those circumstances, with an unjustifiable set of development and maintenance costs. But war against a peer competitor would be a different story; in the event of a major conflict, being able to defeat layered defences would be important. And if Rod Lyon is right that nuclear weapons are making a comeback, then a credible suite of delivery mechanisms remains an important part of assurance to allies and deterrence to adversaries.
In any case, the fact that funds for development of the LRS-B have been allocated—almost US$1 billion last year and more likely in 2016 (PDF)—shows that current thinking is that long-range strike capability is required. The USAF Magazine describes a bomber as ‘vital to power projection’ (they would say that, wouldn’t they?) and its proponents say that the ability to autonomously gather real time data on mobile land targets is unique to aerial strike platforms. Strikes against such targets from submarines or long-range missiles would require constantly updated third-party targeting data from either air or space. But the argument for a real-time aerial capability is highly questionable for anyone who recalls the ‘great Scud hunt’. So unless a compelling case can be made for greatly increased efficacy of long-range strike capability against mobile targets, there are a couple of credible alternatives to test the bomber business case against: submarines and long-range missiles.
The USN’s submarines also offer the stealth required for a modern strike platform. Attack submarines can launch cruise missiles and the Ohioclass can launch both conventional cruise missiles and nuclear ballistic missiles. But the cost-effectiveness numbers don’t really stack up for the subs—a Virginia-class boat costs four times as much as estimated for the LRS-B (and still twice as much as it’ll probably cost). It can fire at most a couple of dozen weapons, giving up a fair proportion of its stealth in the process, and will be slow to return to reload. In terms of weapons per dollar per day, the bomber wins hands down. The Ohio-class SSGNs can load many more missiles, but they also cost more and have the same limitations regarding compromise of stealth and turnaround times. Submarines might remain a useful adjunct to airborne strike, but they won’t replace it.
That leaves us with missiles—either long-range ballistic missiles that can be launched from land bases or submarines, or long-range cruise missiles that can be launched from much less advanced aerial platforms (‘missile trucks’) or naval vessels that can stand off at safe ranges. Robert Haddick has done the sums on the relative costs of missiles and the LRS-B and concludes that the LRS-B is a good buy. But he makes two doubtful assumptions: that the aircraft unit program cost will be at most $1 billion (see the previous post for why that looks optimistic) and that the aircraft can deliver the short-range and relatively inexpensive JDAM weapon—already a questionable assumption against state-of-the-art defences, and one that will only erode with time. Instead, the LRS-B will have to stand off from the hardest targets and inevitably have to use more expensive weapons that are effective at range.
Most importantly, he compares the acquisition cost of the missiles and the aircraft, rather than the through-life cost. Missiles are relatively cheap to maintain—in fact they’re designed to stay in storage for long periods and still be useable—but aircraft certainly aren’t. The rule of thumb is that you incur twice the acquisition cost over a 30-year lifetime. For an already expensive platform, be it aircraft or submarine, that really ratchets up the total cost and I suspect that a better calculation would be much more finely balanced than Haddick suggests. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s a factor of three to five short on the total LRS-B costs.
Still, America will probably have a new bomber sometime in the next decade or so. But that might be more because of the ‘replacement syndrome’ that permeates force structure thinking than because it represents value.