Industry looking for indications of new bomber

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."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.