As discussed here previously, Kelsey Atherton, a writer who focuses on military technology for Popular Science, recently highlighted the need to ask the right questions about defense programs early in the process. Atherton’s plea for “forward-leaning” defense journalism came in the wake of a New York Times editorial calling for cancellation of the F-35 about a decade too late. Taking his own advice, Atherton recently posted a piece on the defense site Foxtrot Alpha with some important questions on a program just getting under way: the B-21.
The B-21, long known as the Long-Range Strike Bomber—or, LRS-B—program, is meant to replace the U.S. Air Force’s aging fleet of B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers. The Department of Defense recently awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to develop and build the B-21. The program is supposed to cost a maximum of $55 billion for 80 to 100 individual bombers. However, that price will likely change as it is in 2010 dollars, the year former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates placed a cap on the cost of the program. It is also likely to change simply due to the fact that anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of major weapons programs experience cost overruns.
Atherton highlights three questions that need to be asked now, rather than when the program reaches the point of no return. With slight modification, they are all very much worth considering.
First, he asks, “How many states are building the B-21?” This question is important because legislators ultimately determine which defense programs live and which ones die. While few explicitly sell weapon programs simultaneously as jobs programs, the prospect of jobs gained in home states and districts is attractive to legislators when considering a program, and potential job losses insulate the program against cancellation when things go bad.
This question does need some context though because the distribution of B-21 production may not be as important as where it is distributed. Much of the distribution of production on a program involves subcontractors and smaller components of a larger system. These smaller components do not always produce a great number of jobs in a large number of districts.
However, wide distribution might not be necessary to insulate the program from cancellation if major production is concentrated in particular states or districts. Diffuse costs and concentrated benefits make it less likely members of Congress working either individually or together will call for the cancellation of a failing program. The wide distribution of subcomponent production is more likely to be helpful in rallying a countervailing coalition in the rare case a coalition seeking program cancellation does arise. But such a countervailing coalition likely would not even be necessary seeing as the most interested parties involved, lawmakers from where major production takes place, have much more at stake to fight for the program than any other lawmaker does in fighting against it. Therefore, the first place to look before examining the wider distribution of production might be at where major production is concentrated because legislators in that state or district will be the most forceful advocates for the program.
Second, Atherton asks, “how ready is the software?” As he mentions early in the piece, computer problems have been a major issue in development of the F-35: “Sometimes the plane’s computers crash and need to be rebooted mid-air.” The complexity of the software involved in making the B-21 “optionally manned”—e.g. able to operate without a crew when necessary—means the Air Force will have to fix the inevitable bugs that will emerge before it enters service.
Additionally, as Atherton notes, it is critically important to consider how software that turns the B-21 into a drone will function along with the aircraft’s other sophisticated software. As Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One noted in a report last September, David Deptula, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, claimed that the new bomber would be more than just a “bomb truck.” He argued that it would also serve as an intelligence gatherer and battlespace manager. While these additional missions will not make the B-21 the watered-down jack-of-all-trades the F-35 is, it will make for increasingly complex software requirements. Can off-the-shelf software handle that level of complexity? Or, more likely, when new software is developed to do so, how quickly can bugs be identified and addressed?
Finally, Atherton asks, “what role does secrecy play in [B-21] development?” The program has long been shrouded in secrecy, and it is likely both the Air Force and Northrop Grumman would want to keep it that way. As Atherton notes in regard to an op-ed by an analyst making the case that secrecy would help reduce the chances of congressional meddling in the program: “that places a tremendous amount of trust in the Air Force and the contractor to act in America’s best interest—and to do so behind closed doors.”
Congressional meddling is inevitable. It just depends when it will occur. Eventually the costs of the B-21 will be publicly revealed. If the new bomber cannot stand up to legislative scrutiny—or if the Air Force and Northrop Grumman have not factored it into their acquisition plans—what does that say about the program?
These are all questions that need to be asked before production on the B-21 ramps up, not as the aircraft begins to enter the service—as was the case with the recent Times editorial board piece. One other question is also worth asking. Are there alternatives to the B-21? As Atherton notes at the end of his piece, anti-stealth air defense capabilities have improved greatly since the last time the Air Force deployed a new stealth bomber. And as Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution asked in a recent op-ed for Defense News, why is the Pentagon asking for a new nuclear-armed cruise missile—with its range of 3,000 kilometers—if the B-21’s ability to penetrate enemy air defense is worth its price tag? That question is worth pondering along with the ones Atherton provides.