Washington Watch

June 1, 2006

No Easy Answers on New Bomber

There is no obvious answer to the question of how the Air Force should fulfill its assignment to get a new long-range strike system in place by 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In a study titled “Alternatives for Long-Range Ground-Attack Systems,” released in April, the CBO looked at eight current and future approaches to long-range strike, evaluating them on attributes such as speed, payload, survivability, and cost.

CBO concluded that no single solution stuck out as a clear winner, although some were decidedly cheaper than others. For example, the report projected that new supersonic bombers would cost more than $900 million apiece, while new high-speed cruise missiles could cost just $1.4 million apiece. Whether the cruise missile would be more cost-effective, however, was not stated.

The CBO did not identify a preferred solution, instead suggesting that policy-makers sort out the pluses and minuses of the various options and then decide. If the critical need is extremely quick response time, for example, then the Pentagon might be willing to pay a premium to get it.

CBO also said there may not be a single solution to the long-range strike requirement, noting that it may involve “more than one of the systems CBO examined.” The eight alternatives were:

  • Specialized “arsenal aircraft”
  • Medium-range subsonic bomber
  • Medium-range supersonic bomber
  • Long-range subsonic cruise bomber
  • Long-range supersonic cruise bomber
  • Medium-range, surface-based hypervelocity vehicle
  • Long-range, surface-based hypervelocity vehicle
  • Space-based re-entry vehicle

As a general rule, the faster the response time of a given solution, the more expensive it tends to be, the CBO found.

Of all the options considered, CBO gave the nod to large, stealthy subsonic bombers as being able to offer the greatest firepower in a single package, able to loiter in the target area for long periods while dispensing low-cost ordnance. While the time of flight of a weapon released from a loitering bomber was quick in an established conflict, where the aircraft were already over the battlefield, it was much slower than other options from a “standing start,” said the report.

In More Detail

Arsenal Craft. CBO considered the prospect of using USAF’s C-17 airlifter as the basis of a new kind of arsenal aircraft, one capable of carrying many cruise missiles internally and releasing them out the rear cargo door for launch.

This, CBO found, was the least expensive of the eight options. It might not even be necessary to buy any new aircraft for this approach, CBO said, if the strike mission could be accommodated by using existing airplanes.

A drawback is that the nonstealthy C-17 would have to loiter outside a danger zone and launch its missiles from there, thus reducing its reach. Large and not designed for evasive action, the C-17 would make an attractive target.

Over all, said CBO, arsenal airplanes would offer “significant firepower” at a cost well below that of bombers. The C-17 would carry missiles that could fly at Mach 3 and travel at least 575 miles, at a cost of under $2 million apiece.

Medium-Range Bombers. CBO’s medium-range bombers were projected at sizes in the F-111 class. Both would be stealthy, but the subsonic version would have a payload greater than that of the supersonic type, which CBO likened to the FB-22 concept. (See “The Raptor as Bomber,” January 2005, p. 28.) The fast version could dash at a speed of Mach 1.5. Either could be manned or unmanned.

The medium bombers would offer “reach and firepower improvements over current long-range strike fighters,” the CBO said, but wouldn’t address the need for global reach or be able to loiter in the target area very long. The Air Force could buy more of them than larger bombers, but not necessarily have greater net firepower, the CBO noted. A larger fleet of aircraft also would entail higher support costs but cover more geographical area at the same time.

The CBO postulated that it would cost $188 million apiece—average unit procurement cost, including research and development—to build a subsonic medium bomber, over a run of 275 aircraft, while a similar number of the supersonic dash version would cost $220 million apiece.

Long-Range Bombers. The large subsonic bomber would be “similar in concept (although not necessarily in specific design) to the stealthy, subsonic B-2,” said CBO, while the large, supersonic craft would be capable of sustaining Mach 2 over most of its mission. Again, the slower model would possess more firepower, but the faster version would reduce the response time. These aircraft, too, could be manned or unmanned.

The big subsonic bombers offer global reach, loitering ability, and a response time of about 15 hours from a “go” order. The supersonic big bombers would sacrifice loitering time and some payload in exchange for a shorter response time, which the CBO did not specify.

The CBO said it would cost about $409 million each for 150 long-range subsonic bombers, including R&D, but the cost would shoot up to $912 million apiece if they were required to cruise at supersonic speed.

The Air Force and the Pentagon have both expressed a desire for a strike platform that could put ordnance on targets within a few minutes of a launch order, but CBO said that doesn’t seem to be technically possible given the state of the art.

Hypervelocity Vehicles. The high-speed missiles would be derived from the Common Aero Vehicle, which has been studied by the Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for several years. The CBO looked at land-launched models, as well as those fired from ships, submarines, and aircraft. The most expensive but fastest on the spectrum of options was the “re-entry vehicle” version of the CAV, which would be maintained in orbit, ready to descend on a time-sensitive target at any time.

The CAVs would be unmanned vehicles “capable of flying through space on suborbital trajectories … shaped to generate sufficient lift so that, after re-entering the atmosphere, they can glide many thousands of miles to their targets at hypersonic speeds with a combination of thrusters and flaps providing maneuvering control.”

Space Vehicles. Orbital CAVs would be in equatorial low Earth orbits until needed, while ground-based CAVs could be launched by a converted intercontinental ballistic missile.

The CBO found that even the hypervelocity CAVs would need about an hour to get to their targets from a standing start but that it would be nearly impossible to defend against them.

“However, their high unit cost implies that they probably could not be purchased in sufficient numbers to provide the sustained firepower offered by aircraft forces,” CBO concluded.

The CBO posited a program unit cost of $26 million each for 48 surface-based CAVs; $36 million each for 24 long-range surface-based CAVs (likely launched on excess ICBMs); and $55 million each for 128 space-based CAVs.

Making the Top 10 List

Under law, the military services have a legal responsibility to “organize, train, and equip” their forces, but new Pentagon moves seem designed to circumvent the services’ “equip” role, with or without changes to the law.

The shift is evident in new steps by Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, to beef up and broaden the authority of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which he chairs. The JROC, a panel comprised of the vice chiefs of all the services, has traditionally evaluated the top wish lists proposed by the services and ranked them for funding in order of priority.

Giambastiani has altered the process, however, by allowing the regional combatant commanders to establish the priorities lists. The COCOMs now are invited to participate in JROC meetings and develop requirements staffs of their own.

The moves echo recommendations of the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment, a 10-month study headed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish. DAPA recommended giving the COCOMs a bigger say in dictating which weapons systems should get first dibs on Pentagon funds. (See “Washington Watch: ‘Radical’ Acquisition Ideas,” March, p. 14.) The Kadish panel said that the new system, if adopted, would put higher emphasis on near-term needs, the better to react to changing battlefield conditions and technologies.

The DAPA panel pointed out, though, that legislation would be needed to implement such a change and that its drawback would be a lessening of attention to long-term development of big technological breakthroughs.

Giambastiani, in concert with the COCOMs and the JROC, has developed a new short list of pressing military needs, based on capability gaps identified by the group. This list presumably trumps any priorities put forward by service chiefs. The ranking is known as “the top 10 list,” although it is not necessarily limited to 10 items.

The JROC prime membership will concentrate on debating these top priorities, and lesser issues will be addressed by JROC staff.

Pentagon officials said Giambastiani’s new steps are an effort to bring more logic to the process of ranking department-wide priorities, especially in light of what are expected to be further reductions in out-year buying power, which will unfurl in the Fiscal 2008 Program Objective Memorandum, or POM, process. The POM is a five-year plan for programming and budgeting, and both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Gordon England, have pledged that the Pentagon will no longer launch programs that can’t be afforded down the road.

Tanker Competition: Hand in Glove

The Air Force’s formal launch of an aerial tanker replacement program in April showed an interesting twist that suggests the Bush Administration is taking seriously its own advice to get disparate government agencies working together in common cause—in this case, the commerce department and the Air Force.

The request for information that went out to industry identified various attributes that the Air Force wants in its new tanker, which will replace the Eisenhower-era KC-135s. Those attributes include size, ability to fuel by either probe and drogue or boom apparatus, possible use as a communications node, secondary roles in cargo/aeromedical evacuation, etc.

The Air Force said it would consider hiring a private company to do the tanking, providing the company can give good answers about how such a scheme would work, and when it would be available, and especially liability and indemnification.

The most interesting thing about the RFI, though, was USAF’s insistence that responding companies explain any financial assistance they receive from their governments, such as subsidies, financing (such as launch aid) for design and development, grants, and government assistance for expanding or developing manufacturing sites, as well as preferential loans and debt forgiveness.

The Air Force wants to know these things so it can determine how they “may affect the life cycle costs of the KC-X program.”

The language in the document, though, is a poke in the eye to Airbus, which is the only major challenger to Boeing to provide a new tanker to USAF. The US and Europe have wrangled for years over the issue of subsidies and how they affect the prices that the two companies can charge for their airliners. The US argues that Airbus receives subsidies, loan forgiveness, and other bailouts from European governments, especially France, to preserve their airliner industrial base; the Europeans counter that Boeing gets lots of defense work from the US government, and these amount to subsidies, allowing Boeing to keep factories and design teams humming along.

The subsidies issue nearly erupted in a trade war last fall, as both the US and Europe traded fusillades at the World Trade Organization, and tempers have only slightly cooled since. The Air Force’s tanker RFI is likely to heat things up again.

The language leaves Airbus in a tough spot: It either reveals the degree of subsidies it does receive, which would provide ammo for the WTO challenges, or it declines and eliminates itself from the tanker competition.

So far so good, except for the potential backlash: One of the main opponents of the original tanker lease deal was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who accused the Air Force and the Pentagon of creating the lease arrangement as a sweetheart deal to Boeing, implying a corrupt purpose. The “poison pill” of the subsidies language could easily put McCain back on the warpath.

Although it was Congress, and not the Air Force, that legislated that Boeing should get the work sole-source, and that it should be a lease (see “The Tanker Blame Game,” September 2005, p. 61), the later fallout of the Darleen Druyun contracting scandal permanently tainted the arrangement, which was dropped.

The KC-X program is potentially worth about $20 billion, although the Air Force has not yet revealed its plan for how many tankers it will buy or at what pace. (See “Charting a Course for Tankers,” p. 64.) A winner of the competition is expected to be chosen next year. Boeing is offering a militarized, tanker version of the 767 airliner, while Northrop Grumman is heading a challenge team including European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., with the Airbus A330. Both outfits have said they will offer other aircraft if USAF’s requirements dictate a larger or smaller aircraft, or a combination of aircraft. (See “The European Invasion,” p. 68.)

Uncertainty on F-22 Numbers

Despite the apparent finality of the Quadrennial Defense Review’s findings that 183 is the optimum number of F-22s for the future, there is some room for optimism that the number will increase, though perhaps not as high as the Air Force’s stated requirement for 381.

Item one: A high-level review expected to recommend cutting the F-22 buy even further appears to be going in the other direction.

A study of tactical air requirements by the consulting firm of Whitney, Bradley, & Brown, Inc., set in motion last fall by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England (see “Washington Watch: England Launches New Fighter Review,” October 2005, p. 12), will recommend between 220 and 260 F-22s be bought, according to Pentagon officials. That’s a surprise because the last WBB study England asked for recommended a cut in the combined Navy-Marine Corps combat aircraft fleet, and England proceeded to reduce the fleet by 400 aircraft. England’s instructions that the firm seek “optimization” of the military’s overall air combat capability in the current study was understood to be marching orders to find savings through more cuts.

The report isn’t due to England until August, leaving plenty of time for anti-Raptor factions in the Pentagon to weigh in, but the very fact that such figures leaked out is considered a positive sign for the Air Force.

Item two: USAF’s Chief of Staff says the Pentagon leadership has been given “assurances” that 183 is the rock-bottom number of F-22s, and more may be needed for industrial-base reasons.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley told defense reporters in April that “we do have assurances from [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] that 183 is the QDR number,” which he said is “the baseline.”

However, he also noted that the QDR determined that the Air Force must have a warm production base for “fifth generation fighters,” those aircraft which exploit a combination of stealth, speed, and sensor fusion. If the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is delayed, Moseley said, it would mean the F-22 production line could be extended, and this move “bridges us to the F-35.”

Asked about the WBB study, Moseley declined to say that the Air Force is hopeful it will get more of the Raptors.

“I think what I want to say is, let’s just let the study play out,” he said. In the meantime, the Air Force is concentrating on getting the program stabilized, from a vendor and subcontractor perspective. Getting that accomplished, along with approval for a three-year multiyear buy, he said, will likely get the F-22’s unit cost down. If that happens, “I think we can set the plateau so that if we have to extend this, relative to Joint Strike Fighter, we’re set right to do it.”