The two aircraft at the center of the Pentagon’s future-of-war plans are headed for a fierce battle, even though one has never faced off against a foreign rival and the other has never flown.
It’s a fight without bombs, missiles, or the chest-thumping roar of 43,000 pounds of jet thrust screaming across the sky. Instead, this clash is unfolding in the shadowy conference rooms of the Pentagon and boardrooms of the world’s largest defense companies. The stakes are high: tens of billions of dollars every year for a decade or more.
That money will fund two of the most sophisticated and expensive planes ever built, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the new Long Range Strike-Bomber, or LRS-B. The bomber needs cash to get off the ground and the skittish F-35 camp already is worried the new kids will steal from the huge but finite pot.
“The F-35A and [the bomber] are almost certainly on a collision course,” said Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The fight will intensify this week when President Barack Obama sends his 2017 budget request to Congress.
The F-35’s price tag looms at $400 billion for thousands of jets to be bought over the next two decades. The 100 planned bombers are expected to cost between $80 billion and $111 billion. The last time the Air Force had such an ambitious plane-building plan, Ronald Reagan was president. But unlike then, defense spending is capped through 2021.
“The problem now is it does not look like we have a buildup of that [Reagan-era] magnitude on the horizon in the defense budget,” Harrison said. “We’re not going to see the budget increase by 30 percent in the near future here.”
Pentagon leaders have expressed unwavering support for both projects.
“[J]ust because it can't out-turn an F-16, or just because it can't go as fast, we are absolutely confident that [the] F-35 will be a war-winner,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said in November at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, responding to critics of the new jet’s performance. “That is because it is using the machine to make the human make better decisions.”
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called the new bomber “a strategic investment in the next 50 years.”
“It demonstrates our commitment to our allies, and our determination to potential adversaries, making it crystal clear that the United States will continue to retain the ability to project power throughout the globe long into the future,” he said in October when the Air Force chose Northrop Grumman to build the plane.
But despite support at the top, a rivalry has emerged within the Air Force ranks, according to Pentagon officials.
“The bomber versus [F-35] fight is one that is taking place inside the building right now,” said the American Enterprise Institute's Mackenzie Eaglen, referring to the Pentagon. Ultimately, political leaders in the Office of the Secretary of Defense will have to arbitrate, she said.
The F-35 has been largely insulated from recent years' spending caps. The Air Force plans to buy the lion’s share of them — 1,763 of the planned 2,443 aircraft — with the Marine Corps and Navy getting the rest.
The Air Force needs to buy new planes, lots of them, in the coming years and not just F-35s and new bombers.
Pentagon leaders have been floating the idea of signing a contract with Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, for more than 450 new F-35s over a three year-period beginning in 2018. Most of those planes would be for the Air Force. Between 2016 and 2020, the Air Force plans to spend more than $25 billion on at least 200 F-35s, according to Pentagon budget documents.
For the bomber, Air Force officials will not disclose the actual yearly budget of the plane, saying that would harm national security. But they have released an estimate that it will cost at least $23.5 billion to develop and at least $56 billion to buy 100 planes.
Meanwhile, work is on hold because the decision to give the job to Northrop Grumman is under protest by Boeing-Lockheed team, the losing bidder. A ruling is expected this month.
A new air refueling tanker, built by Boeing, will also play a tangential role in the fight. But the KC-46 tanker is likely to prompt less infighting because most of the Air Force’s current refueling planes date back to the Eisenhower administration. Plus tankers are needed to gas up different planes in all branches of the U.S. military and allies as well.
“The tanker is in a different category in the debate because the F-35 is useless without the tanker and the LRS-B … still needs tanking,” Harrison said.
The tanker program, valued at more than $40 billion, also is more stable because Boeing, not the taxpayer, must pay for any cost increases. The Air Force is eyeing 60 new tankers costing about $15 billion between 2017 and 2020. “That programs has got a lot more security,” Harrison said.
In 2015, the Air Force spent a total of $12 billion on new planes across the board. It is expected to need $22 billion in 2023 for the F-35, bomber, tanker and new planes for intelligence and other types of special missions, Harrison said.
“The problem now is we’ve got three massive programs that are overlapping almost perfectly in time,” Harrison said. “This is really the perfect storm for aircraft modernization.”
And the main driver of what Harrison calls a “bow wave” is the F-35, bomber and tanker.
With three of the world’s largest defense companies in the ring, that fight will soon spill outside of the Pentagon’s walls and into lobbying campaigns.
“I think that we’re going to see a prolonged battle among these programs and these companies,” Harrison said. “It’s gonna get nasty.”
Lockheed, Northrop and Boeing would not disclose specifically how they plan to market their respective projects in the coming months and years ahead.
But Lockheed said that as cash gets tight, it plans to stay focused on the F-35's performance.
“Our central objective is to always deliver the very best and most cost effective weapon systems and products to ensure our services have the resources they need for our warfighters,” Lockheed spokesman Joseph LaMarca said in an email. “Lockheed Martin’s relationship with the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Department at large remains strong and we continue to work with them on a daily basis to support their strategic priorities.”
A new round begins on Tuesday when the Pentagon’s budget proposal heads to Capitol Hill, but many more rounds are sure to follow.
“This is going to be a fight that drags out over many years,” Harrison said. “Unless someone loses and a program is canceled. And I don’t think that’s likely.”