Washington Watch: New Life for the B-2?

Aug. 1, 1994

In the end, the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces may be the key to keeping the B-2 bomber from going out of production. B-2 champions are betting that the commission will assign landbased bombers the leading role in applying US airpower around the world and that this will clear the way for a larger bomber force and a bigger buy of B-2s to fill it out.

Their reasoning rings true. The Air Force, in beefing up its bomber force, would seem to have nowhere to turn but to the B-2. The boomerang-shaped stealth bomber is the only one around with the potential for future production and with the ability to penetrate heavily defended enemy air space.

The B-52 and the B-1B are long gone from assembly lines. They will remain valuable for a long time to come, but their technology is out of date and their production is unquestionably a thing of the past. The Air Force has no apparent plans to bring on another new bomber besides the B-2.

Timing may be a problem for B-2 promoters. The roles and missions commission, chartered by Congress in 1993 and appointed by the Secretary of Defense, is a long way from drawing conclusions. It got down to business only a few months ago and is not scheduled to report its conclusions to the Secretary of Defense and Congress until next spring or summer.

By then, the B-2 industrial base will have come apart unless Congress moves in the meantime to hold it together. There are signs that this will happen.

A First Step

The Senate Armed Services Committee took the first step last June. SASC included in its military authorization bill $150 million to maintain the B-2 production base through Fiscal Year 1995. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the panel chairman, acknowledged that he and like-minded lawmakers faced an uphill fight–“the odds are against us”–in persuading Congress to approve the production-base funding.

They won the first round, though, and much more handily than expected. On July 1, the Senate convincingly rejected, by a vote of 55-45, a proposal by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to delete the B-2 industrial base funding. The full participation in the Senate vote on the eve of the July 4 congressional recess reflected the importance and the highly controversial nature of the issue at hand.

Dismantling the B-2 industrial base would leave the US without a bomber production capability for the first time in more than seventy years. Rebuilding the base and assembling a new production team from scratch would cost several billion dollars, B-2 contractor Northrop claims. The Senate vote was seen as a blow for common sense–to buy time for the B-2 industrial base while revisiting bomber roles and requirements. If allowed to wither, the B-2 industrial base could always be restored later on–but at an increasingly high cost as the years go by.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a leading exponent of the B-2, made a strong case on behalf of the bomber’s extraordinary structural attributes.

“No other aircraft in the world, civilian or military, is built like the B-2,” she asserted. “The skills and production techniques used for [its] large composite structures are unique to the B-2 industrial team, and the B-2 line is the country’s last remaining active bomber production line.”

In its campaign for congressional approval of B-2 production-base funds, Northrop claimed that preserving the base would “protect the option to purchase additional B-2s at a reasonable price and within a reasonable time.” The company also noted that the move would give Congress time to make “an informed, rational decision about how large a force of B-2s should be purchased” after seeing the results of the roles and missions review that Congress had requested.

In its report, SASC gave big play to the connection between the roles and missions review and bomber-force issues. The committee criticized the Defense Department for having “settled on a [bomber] force structure and modernization plan” before learning the results of several analyses and test programs relevant to that plan.

Among other things, said SASC, “The independent Roles and Missions Commission is examining bomber-force structure tradeoffs with other military forces.”

The committee said it “looks forward with keen anticipation to the recommendations of the Roles and Missions Commission and hopes its findings will shed additional light on future bomber requirements in time for action on the [Pentagon’s] Fiscal Year 1996 [budget] request.”

Landbased vs. Seabased

SASC also said it “urges the Roles and Missions Commission . . . to review thoroughly the capabilities of [landbased] bombers and carrier-based air forces in the early phases of a short-warning MRC [major regional conflict] when enemy actions may constrain our ability to provide landbased tactical airpower and ground-force reinforcements.”

The report noted that carrier-based airpower can make “an important early contribution . . . to the defeat of an armored incursion” by means of “combat air patrols and suppression of organic enemy air defense assets.” This would “make it possible for nonstealthy Air Force bombers to deliver large weapons payloads with improved survivability.”

Because of its stealth, the B-2 is the only bomber–Air Force or Navy–that does not require such support. USAF’s Bomber Roadmap, issued in June 1992 and now being updated, took note of this.

“Stealth and precision,” it said, “give the B-2 a revolutionary advantage in combat operations, making it the leading edge of our initial response to conflict.”

The roles and missions connection came into play at a hearing last May of SASC’s Subcommittee on Nuclear Deterrence, Arms Control, and Defense Intelligence. Gen. John Michael Loh, commander of Air Combat Command, was the witness. B-2 production-base funding was at issue.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) asked General Loh whether the $150 million under consideration would “give us some options to keep the B-2 line open if the roles and missions study comes back and says we need to reconfigure [the bomber force].”

“The $150 million is about the amount that would maintain the production team together for about a year,” General Loh replied. During that grace period, he said, “a number of things can take place that bear on the question of the size and the adequacy of the bomber force,” including “the work of the Roles and Missions Commission,” completion of the Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review–a reexamination of requirements for nuclear weapons and delivery systems–and the development of “an acquisition strategy [for bombers].”

“I believe the industrial base for bombers is extremely important and worth preserving,” the ACC commander told the SASC subcommittee. He noted that the US had invested $25 billion in B-2 research and development and had been rewarded with “a substantial capability that no other nation has.”

Heavy Hitters

General Loh has observed on many occasions that the Air Force has become an expeditionary force centered in the US and that its bombers are its heaviest hitters. “Ninety percent of [Air Force] combat power is in the United States,” he said. “Our job is to project that power across the globe. Bombers are extraordinarily valuable weapon systems in this equation.”

The US national military strategy requires US armed forces to be able to fight and win two MRCs almost simultaneously. General Loh sees the bomber force as the key to fulfilling that strategy and has warned of a bomber shortfall.

SASC saw things his way. In its report, the committee noted that the Bomber Roadmap of 1992 and the Defense Department’s Bottom-Up Review of 1993 “both called for a force structure of 184 bombers, yet the [Pentagon] budget request funds only 100 [bombers] during Fiscal Year 1995, and only eighty thereafter. The committee believes this is inadequate to meet current and future requirements.”

SASC also reported, “Four recent independent studies all find that the planned DoD force structure of eighty to 100 nonstealthy bombers, with only twenty B-2s, is inadequate to deal with two MRCs. DoD has been unable to offer a coherent and consistent explanation for these discrepancies.”

As they became aware of Pentagon plans to circumscribe the bomber force, pro-bomber contingents in both houses of Congress increasingly questioned the wisdom of capping B-2 production at twenty bombers and of removing numerous B-52 and B-1 bombers from active service.

“Under this [Pentagon] budget,” complained Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), chairman of SASC’s Subcommittee on Nuclear Deterrence, Arms Control, and Defense Intelligence, “forty-seven B-52H bombers would be scrapped-sent to the boneyard. None of the twenty-three B-1B bombers in the [Air Force’s] newly established attrition reserve would receive either the conventional weapons modification or the ECM upgrades [Congress] has devoted so much time and attention to.”

Thus, he said, “the administration plans before us envision no more than forty active B-52Hs and sixty active B-1B bombers, plus whatever B-2s are available. In my view, this is a plan to decimate the bomber force, not improve it.”

The defense authorization bills of both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees reflected such misgivings. The HASC bill authorized $100 million for a “bomber-force upgrade program”–switching older bombers from reserve to active status and upgrading them at a faster pace. Both bills would require the Air Force to quit deactivating bombers and to hold steady at a force of 190 B-1s and B-52s–ninety-five of each–while revising its bomber-force requirements. SASC called the Pentagon’s bomber-force projections “unacceptable.”

A Smart Bomber Strategy

Those projections were ripe for revision. The Air Force had been reexamining its bomber requirements for some time. In the spring of 1993, General Loh predicted that ACC’s “combat forces roadmap,” then near completion and now classified, would show “the need for a smart bomber acquisition strategy.”

“I don’t want to quit buying bombers forever and stick with what we have now,” General Loh told Air Force Magazine at the time. “We have to come up with a way to buy more bombers to replace our older B-52s, maybe with some additional B-2s.”

Or with another, follow-on bomber besides the B-2

“We’ll look at the B-2 first,” he replied, “because we’ve already made a huge investment in its development.”

Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has taken the position that the Air Force would like more B-2s but can’t afford them, given other requirements [see “McPeak Sums It Up,” p. 30].

General McPeak seems willing to leave matters in the hands of the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, in the expectation that it will strongly reaffirm the role of landbased airpower and, by implication at least, the need for a bigger bomber force.

Meanwhile, said the Chief of Staff, the Air Force plans to reduce its bomber force, equip bombers with precision guided munitions to make them much more effective, and then expand the force later on and as required.

“I expect to see the bomber force build back up toward the end of the century,” he declared.

The rub is that the dwindling bomber force may be caught short of PGMs. The Air Force estimates that it will be at least five more years before the force is fully armed with PGMs. General McPeak acknowledges that the interim period will be “risky.”

There are no new bombers on the horizon besides the B-2, and this raises other questions. If the B-2 is out of production, how will the Air Force be able to expand its bomber force without reestablishing the B-2 production line? What good will it do to have the Roles and Missions Commission affirm the primacy of landbased airpower if the Air Force lacks enough bombers to apply it in full measure and has no plans to buy any more

Protecting the Cap

The bomber dilemma is rooted in the 1992 agreement between the Defense Department and Congress to cap B-2 production at twenty bombers. The Air Force originally planned a force of 132 B-2s; cut that number, under budgetary pressure, to seventy-five; and finally settled for twenty. B-2 opponents in Congress, led by Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have been fiercely protective of the production-cap agreement.

The Pentagon has gone out of its way to deny it has plans to buy more B-2s. From time to time, General McPeak, Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall, Defense Secretary William J. Perry, and Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch have all come forth with verbal and written assurances.

Anti-B-2 lawmakers saw the SASC proposal to preserve the B-2 industrial base as a foot in the door. In attacking it, Senator Levin used ammunition in the form of a letter from Deputy Defense Secretary Deutch.

Mr. Deutch wrote, “Absent an unlikely budget windfall for Defense or a radical shift in our budget priorities, we simply can’t afford additional B-2 aircraft. The billions of dollars that would be needed to sustain such an effort are not affordable. Funds for additional aircraft would have to be taken from higher-priority defense needs that support the readiness and modernization of our forces and a viable support infrastructure.”

He also wrote that DoD “has continuously examined the role of the B-2” in the bomber force and that “no requirement has emerged . . . to change the recommendation in the Bottom-Up Review for twenty B-2 aircraft.”

Mr. Deutch claimed that DoD “has taken the necessary steps to deal with B-2 industrial-base and programmatic issues.” He noted that the Pentagon’s Fiscal 1995 budget includes nearly $800 million to produce “an aircraft with superior military capabilities, as well as to provide us with a wealth of manufacturing technology and experience that our defense industry will draw on in our development and procurement of other systems, even after the B-2 line closes down.”

The Deutch letter proved unpersuasive, probably because it was beside the point. The point was not the production of additional B-2s. Nor was it the Pentagon’s development of generic aircraft manufacturing technologies. It was the preservation of the B-2 base against the day when more might be needed.

DoD’s adamant opposition to the production-base funding left no room for second thoughts about B-2 production in the aftermath of next year’s roles and missions report. The Pentagon would have to spend several billion dollars to reassemble the B-2 industrial base and production team. It also would have to wait a long time–maybe too long–to get those new bombers into operation.

The B-2 program is a case in point. The Air Force took delivery of its first operational B-2 at Whiteman AFB, Mo., last December–no less than fifteen years after the stealth bomber began taking shape on drawing boards.

General Loh knows as well as anyone how slowly new bombers come into being. He monitored the marathon B-2 program from command vantage points in both the operational and acquisition arenas, and he does not relish a repeat performance.

Three per Year

About a year ago, General Loh asked Northrop to determine the cost of sustaining B-2 production at a low rate of perhaps three bombers a year. Senator Nunn and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee, weighed in with the same request.

The idea of low-rate production to keep an industrial base alive was hardly revolutionary. DoD had already endorsed it for submarines, thus enabling the Navy’s submarine contractors to stabilize their work forces and take advantage of their proven production infrastructure.

Northrop concluded that its well-established B-2 industrial base and manufacturing processes would be able to produce three B-2s per year at an average flyaway cost of $575 million per plane. Northrop also estimated that it would take $150 million to stabilize the B-2 industrial base.

There was little time to lose. The base had already begun to shrink. Suppliers and vendors had begun closing up shop or looking elsewhere. Northrop’s B-2 assembly plant at Palmdale, Calif., was shutting down step by step.

Last spring, B-2 subcontractors Boeing and Vought finished manufacturing their respective B-2 structural sections, sent their final shipsets to the Palmdale plant, and began packing up and stowing their production gear. Boeing delivered its final aft center section last December and its final outboard wing section last May. It will continue work on B-2 fuel systems and landing gear and will support B-2 flight testing, but its role as a major B-2 manufacturer is over unless B-2 production gets a second wind. The same goes for Vought, maker of composite structures for the bomb bays.

A Northrop report on B-2 production notes that Boeing “has alternate uses for the [B-2] floor space already planned and will begin retooling its facilities immediately as they are freed up. B-2 tooling will be stored or disposed of according to provisions negotiated with the Air Force. This will effectively eliminate Boeing’s capability to produce critical subassemblies for the B-2.”

Unlike Boeing, Vought did its B-2 manufacturing in a government-owned plant in Texas. Thus, says the Northrop report, Vought’s “portion of the manufacturing line will not necessarily be retooled for quite some time, but the [Vought] people dedicated to B-2 production will be diverted or laid off, and critical skills will soon deteriorate.”

“Comparable decisions will affect B-2 production potential at the other major contractors,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the twentieth and last production B-2, scheduled for delivery to the Air Force in 1997, is now taking shape at Northrop’s huge assembly hangar in Palmdale, and the dismantling of the assembly line there has already begun.

The line has fourteen workstations. By the end of June, the final B-2 had progressed to the fourth workstation, leaving the first three with nothing more to do. Each workstation that the final B-2 leaves behind is shut down, its tooling mothballed, and its work force dispersed.

Northrop claims that the $150 million proposed to preserve the B-2 production base will enable the company to “delay mothballing and keep the line warm for at least one more year.” Northrop surveyed its suppliers and vendors and found that “most will probably continue to be available for new procurements over the next three years.”

Northrop said that it would spend production-base funds to keep key suppliers in business and to reestablish those already out of business, to provide for adequate stocks of forgings, castings, and composite materials, and to keep tooling at Northrop, Boeing, and Vought plants in top condition.

If Congress does not come through with production-base funding, said Northrop, “the lead time to produce the first additional B-2 will increase by more than a year,” and “the total cost to initiate sustained low-rate production will increase by more than $650 million.”