The Pentagon's Next Long-Range Boondoggle?

Too old?

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

In the next few months, the U.S. Air Force will decide which military contractor will win the right to charge the government for billions in cost overruns for the next few decades. Oh, and the winner will have to build a new bomber, too.

They are separate but related questions: How exactly does the military plan to avoid the fiasco that was the previous long-range bomber project, which resulted in a cut from a planned fleet of 132 to just 20? More important, how exactly do manned aircraft fit into the future of warfare? On these and other issues, Congress needs to demand answers.

The first question is more immediate. The $55 billion contract is for 100 planes -- which has most budget experts struggling to keep a straight face, given that the previous-generation bomber, the aforementioned B-2, ended up costing $2.2 billion apiece. Moreover, the military has gone all-in on its new F-35 fighter, a $400 billion contract that can no longer be scaled back significantly given that 45 U.S. states have some employment stake in its production and a host of allied nations are waiting on deliveries. So if the U.S. wants to slow the annual increases in Pentagon budgeting, as it should, something else will have to give.

On that score, one aspect of this contract is already worrisome. There are only two bidders on the nascent project: Northrop Grumman, which built the B-2, and a joint bid from Lockheed Martin and Boeing. This has led to concerns that the loser may quit the combat-aircraft industry entirely, further consolidating the so-called defense-industrial base. As concerning as this is, however, it cannot be a consideration in choosing the winner.

No matter who wins, the larger questions are strategic. What are the greatest threats the U.S. is likely to face during the bomber's lifespan, probably between 2025 and 2060? Will stealth or speed be more effective in countering them? What is its exact role in the so-called pivot to Asia and in the Pentagon's official new doctrine of "Air-Sea Battle" (which centers on ensuring free access to the "global commons")? What place will it have in our nuclear-deterrence triad? And, to reiterate, how important will manned bombers be in an age of drones and other unmanned technologies?

The primary threats to U.S. interests in the medium term remain terrorists and non-state actors (such as the stateless Islamic State). And even as potential adversaries catch up, the trio of U.S. bombers -- the slow but stealthy B-2, the aging B-1 Lancer, and the ancient but dependable B-52, which has been in service since the late 1940s -- continue to be retrofitted and updated and remain capable of most offensive and reactionary missions, especially in combination with the Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and other assets.

U.S. taxpayers will end up paying for these new bombers. And while the Pentagon may be justified in keeping many details of this contract classified, it needs to provide some answers to Congress and taxpayers. This is a once-in-a-generation decision that will have a profound effect not only on the military's budget but also on America's ability to defend itself.  It's not too much to ask that the Air Force be more forthcoming about it. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.