When the Pentagon sends its fiscal 2012 budget request to Capitol Hill next month, many lawmakers and defense industry officials will scan the lengthy document for any hints about a future long-range bomber the Air Force plans to build to modernize a fleet whose average age is 33 years.
The effort, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly endorsed earlier this month, is one of only a handful of new developmental programs -- and the only new major aviation program -- the cash-strapped Pentagon is proposing.
In a January 6 speech otherwise remembered for a list of programs he wants to terminate or scale back, Gates said conventional deep-strike capabilities, including a new bomber, are a "high priority for future defense investment," considering the challenges and more sophisticated adversaries the United States could face in the future.
"It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service," Gates said.
His remarks were not lost on the industry, which has been clamoring for another chance to design, develop and build a bomber since Gates axed the manned bomber program in 2009. At the time, Gates said before moving forward that he wanted a more thorough understanding of the need and requirements for a new bomber.
Industry giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are all expected to vie for the program, a multibillion-dollar, optionally manned, nuclear capable bomber.
Winning the contest would be a huge financial victory for any one of those firms, while also giving them a priceless opportunity to preserve a highly skilled workforce that hasn't seen much work in the last two decades. Indeed, the last bomber built for the U.S. military was the B-2, a Northrop Grumman program whose maiden flight was in 1989.
Design teams capable of creating a bomber are nearing retirement age. And, without new work soon, it will be difficult for the outgoing workforce to pass along the skills to a new generation of designers and engineers.
"We have an army of engineers who are extremely highly trained and competent [and who] frankly need the work," said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who recently served as a senior adviser to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review of military capabilities and requirements.
There is concern, Gunzinger said, that without a new bomber program, the expertise culled during the development and production of the military's mostly Cold War-era bombers could potentially take decades to replace.
"Those design teams basically won't exist unless the [Department of Defense] pays for them," said David Berteau, an industry analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "DoD has to spend enough money to keep enough design teams in play that they have enough competition."
But despite Gates' support for the program and widespread concerns about the industrial base, industry watchers expect the 2012 budget to contain very little additional detail and perhaps only a bit of seed money to keep the three companies interested in the program-and their design teams employed.
Gates and other officials have made news in recent weeks by backing a bomber that can be piloted remotely and will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. And Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on January 12 stressed the need to field an affordable aircraft by tapping proven technologies.
"Development of this new bomber will leverage more mature technologies and we think will reduce the risk in the program, allow us to deliver with greater confidence on schedule and in quantities sufficient to support the long-term sustainment of long range bomber capabilities after the current fleets of B-1s and B-52s retire," Donley said.
Other details, such as the stealth characteristics and technologies required to evade modern radars, are more elusive. And some analysts say major technological advances for the onboard systems are still years away, making the 2020s the only reasonable goal by which to field the bomber.
"I just don't think we're quite there yet," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.
But if the Pentagon sets aside money specifically for bomber development in its 2012 budget, that would at least be a step forward. In its fiscal 2011 proposal, the Pentagon requested $200 million for the effort, but that funding was largely for studies on the design of the future bomber, as well as needed upgrades to the existing fleet.
Whatever may or may not be in the 2012 budget proposal, the industry will almost certainly be reading between the lines to glean more details on what the Pentagon wants and when it plans to start investing significant cash to develop and buy the bomber.
"It could be that the details emerge for possible approaches [which would serve as] guidance to the companies on where they should be investing their money and focusing their studies," Aboulafia said. "That's a step in the right direction."