Staying Stealthy

Aug. 1, 2014

By this time next year, the Air Force expects to choose a company to develop and build the Long-Range Strike Bomber, its first new bomber since the last B-2 was christened in July 2000. The service plans to buy the top-secret LRS-B in a new way, applying lessons learned from previous big-ticket projects to ensure USAF gets enough aircraft to keep it fully capable in the global strike business for decades to come.

Air Force acquisition executive William A. LaPlante, in his first interview about the LRS-B, revealed the service’s acquisition strategy, the timing of contracts and delivery, and the overall scheme of evolving it to meet rapidly changing threats and incorporate new technologies.

The bitter lesson the Air Force wants to avoid repeating is its experience with the B-2 itself. After investing heavily in leap-ahead stealth technologies and building a factory meant to produce 132 aircraft, the service wound up procuring just 21 usable airplanes and USAF was compelled to extend the lifespan of its B-52s yet again. Since then, the Air Force has been through at least three iterations of its future bomber: the “2018 bomber,” the “Next Generation Bomber,” and now the LRS-B.

“We’re forcing ourselves to make sure we indeed have the money in the budget to afford what we start,” LaPlante said. “The commitment” to keep the aircraft requirements in check “is key,” he said.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, speaking at the National Press Club in April, said everything in the Air Force’s buying plan for the 2020s—and there is a lot of new hardware on the books—is affordable within the budget topline the service is forecast to get.

Welsh said the Air Force is not expecting “money from heaven” to be able to afford its LRS-B, a new tanker, the F-35 fighter, a new trainer, and other programs. “It’s in the plan, even at these reduced [budget] levels,” Welsh asserted, explaining that USAF is assuming risk in force structure now in order to afford the equipment it needs later. He also said that he alone has the authority to change the requirements for the bomber. Requirements changes have been blamed for numerous overages on other projects.

“One of the reasons programs get canceled is because we start things we can’t afford,” LaPlante said, adding that the Air Force is determined that won’t happen this time. Requirements for the LRS-B have not changed since 2010, he noted.

Since the LRS-B’s inception—following former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ 2009 cancellation of the Next Generation Bomber—the Air Force has kept its comments about the new aircraft to a minimum. When asked, USAF leaders have said only that the LRS-B project is planned to produce 80 to 100 aircraft with the first one complete by the “mid-2020s”; that the airplane will be “optionally manned”; that its unit cost is pegged at $550 million each (stated as a flyaway cost in 2010 dollars); that it will rely on fairly mature technologies to curb risk; that it is only one element in a “family” of long-range strike systems; and that a future version will be capable of performing the nuclear strike role.

Asked why the Air Force has not specified a particular number of bombers it wants to buy, but a range of 80 to 100—after previously specifying a discrete number for F-22s and F-35s, for example—LaPlante answered with another question.

“Tell me a program in any service—ships as well—where we’ve produced as many as we’ve said? … How many B-2s do we have?” He argued that 80 to 100 is “a tight bound” and USAF must set a number of some kind to give credence to the unit cost of $550 million.

“If you’re going to shoot for a number per airplane, you’ve got to know how many, roughly, you’re going to produce.” The $550 million unit cost is based on 100 bombers. The cost would be higher if the Air Force did not build as many, because development costs and overhead would be spread out over fewer aircraft.

The program is also shooting for a production rate that is not so fast that concurrency is an issue, but not so slow as to lose the efficiencies of the learning curve.

“What’s important,” LaPlante said, “is not the number per year, but that we set a course and stick to it. And that the course is … economical.”

Others have suggested the LRS-B may or should be a bigger program. The former Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, has suggested a figure of 175 because of the other functions beyond long-range strike that the new bomber should be capable of performing.

In May, Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, told staffers on Capitol Hill that 120 LRS-Bs could serve as a hedge against future uncertainty, if money were not an issue. It was his personal opinion, he said, and based on his experience at the 509th Bomb Wing—where it was a challenge to manage what he called the “microfleet” of 20 remaining B-2s.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces panel, said in April he doesn’t think 100 LRS-Bs are enough, but didn’t have another number in mind. When asked if he thought more than 100 were needed—or that there’s not enough money to buy 100—his reply was, “Possibly both.”

Stealth has its Merits

Few other details have emerged. A Boeing-led team, with Lockheed Martin as a partner, announced it is competing for the program. Boeing is the prime contractor for the KC-46 tanker, and Lockheed Martin builds the joint service F-35 and built USAF’s top fighter, the stealthy F-22.

Northrop Grumman, builder of the B-2, has stopped short of announcing its intent to compete. A spokesman said only that it is “interested” in the program and has the design and industrial capability “to meet the mission requirements.” Northrop Grumman declined to bid on the Navy A-12 attack airplane program in the 1980s because it didn’t believe the fixed-price development contract was workable. The A-12 wound up being canceled for cost and schedule overruns.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in February that “there are two teams at present that are working on preproposal-types of activities” related to the bomber and that they were “preparing to … take the next step in the competition.”

The secrecy surrounding the LRS-B is purposeful, LaPlante explained. The B-2 itself was not revealed until it was rolled out of the hangar publicly in 1988, he noted, and today, given “the open press … and the cyber vulnerabilities that we all face every day, … we have to … protect critical information.” More details will be revealed over time, he said, but “when you’re in early phases of programs with advanced technologies like this, … it’s wise to keep it very carefully held.”

In the May interview, LaPlante said requests for proposals had been out to contractors for some time, with discussions—“tweaking”—back and forth about what would be in the final version. The evaluation process would begin with a contractor selection “nominally within about a year,” or in the June 2015 time frame. Development and production would be geared to produce a usable article in 2024, he said.

The competition involves considerable investment from the contractors and flying articles, LaPlante revealed. The government didn’t require this investment, but “if you want to be cutting edge,” companies need to invest to have “the best market advantage,” even if that market is limited to the military. Asked if the LRS-B will apply the philosophy of “fly before buy”—a frequent congressional demand usually meaning a fly-off competition—LaPlante said that because “this is relying on relatively mature technologies, and potentially decades of our industrial base supporting it,” evaluators “will not be merely looking at paper designs to make decisions.”

There are “variants of technical articles, … prototypes, if you want to call it,” that are being evaluated, he said. Some of these assets “are internal resources that industry has already; some of it is stuff that we have funded through various programs over the years, so that’s all going into what is going to be looked at in the next year.”

Northrop Grumman is believed to have extensive subscale flying data on hand from work it did in preparation for the Next Generation Bomber project and is flying the stealthy X-47B remotely piloted aircraft under a Navy contract. Boeing’s self-funded “Phantom Ray” RPA has flown publicly, and Lockheed Martin has built a number of stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel RPAs for the Air Force.

Contractors will be able to offer capability beyond the required “threshold” level, LaPlante said, with the goal not to simply seek “the lowest acceptable technical approach.” However, there will be a limit to how much extra USAF is willing to spend to get more capability, preferring to keep the initial version well-defined and pursue refinements with later “variants.” The downselect will be to a single contractor, LaPlante said. There will be no next stage of competition.

The chosen system “will be able to do the kill chain”—able to fly many missions entirely on its own, without support—but LaPlante emphasized the LRS-B is simply one element of the “family of systems” and works better when linked with a network of other platforms and capabilities.

The LRS-B has to operate with “the electronic warfare aspects, [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] aspects, communications,” and is built around “how all of that together … accomplishes the mission associated with long-range strike.” Not all of the family of systems reside in USAF and will rely on other services’ capabilities, such as the Navy’s EA-18 Growler, he said.

The acquisition strategy is to “go with relatively mature technologies, do this competitive phase, and build in design points and an adaptable strategy that allow us to do block upgrades to future variants to adapt to the world,” LaPlante said. After this scheme was approved, “we stuck to it.”

Ready Technology

The first variants may well be the “80 percent” solution, and deliberately so, he said. On other flawed programs, “we’ve tried to put so much into the first version, because we want it to be advanced,” LaPlante said. As the inevitable delays take hold to accommodate emerging technologies and changes, “the system then loses confidence that there’s going to be later versions, so … it circles in on itself, and then you want all the capabilities to be in the first, and then we end up with 15-year development programs.”

Service leaders have suggested that to hold risk down, only elements at Technology Readiness Level 6 and above will be included. The nomenclature of TRLs refers to how mature a technology is. TRL of 1 is a basic scientific idea. TRL 4 indicates a technology has successfully passed the experimental stage. TRL of 6 indicates that prototypes have been successfully demonstrated and partial integration with other systems has been demonstrated. TRL 8 is “mission qualified.” TRL 9—the highest—is “mission proven” technology. On previous projects, industry leaders have urged USAF to reach by including TRLs at the 4 or 5 level to achieve big breakthroughs that bestow a generational lead over competitors. Northrop Grumman officials have disclosed that the B-2 program started out with some technologies at the TRL 3 level.

How will the bomber stay ahead of adversaries over its 40-year service life if it starts with largely proven technologies? LaPlante said TRL 6 capabilities are “not in the bag, by any stretch” and do indeed constitute a technology leap.

With the evolutionary strategy—LaPlante called it the “Block A” approach—“you focus on getting the first version done.” After that, “you put in the adaptive parts of the design” such as “hardened points” on the wings, and an “open architecture” to plug in new systems. This allows for future upgrades “and you get on with it.”

He compared the strategy to that taken with the F-16 over the last 40 years. Externally, today’s F-16 looks like the original version from the 1970s, but “it’s a fundamentally different capability on the inside.” However, USAF has to be disciplined about putting technology in the first block that is mature—“and this is a key point”—that has earned its way onto the program.” Trying to put in technology either not needed or too immature for the first batch will only cause delays, he said.

Stealth has not been rendered an obsolete technology by advanced radars, LaPlante said. “An important part of the kill chain is … how stealthy you are,” he insisted. “That’s why we quiet our submarines.” Submarines that are most silent “win in that part of the kill chain and [the enemy] can’t shoot them. It’s that simple.”

Although the Air Force has consistently said that the initial version of the LRS-B would not be nuclear capable—an assertion LaPlante repeated in the interview—the service subsequently refined its position on the matter, saying that the “base-line version … will be nuclear-capable on Day 1.” The Air Force explained through a spokesman that while the “Block A” model of the LRS-B will have all the necessary “piping, wiring, structure built in” to carry out the nuclear mission, it will probably take up to two years to “certify” the aircraft for the nuclear role. That certification will require USAF to demonstrate the airplane has completed operational testing, can carry a nuclear payload, has enough pilots, maintainers, weapons handlers, and other necessary personnel properly trained, and that its operating base has proper storage and handling facilities for nuclear weapons. Hardening isn’t “necessarily” needed up front, LaPlante said.

The LRS “family” has to be capable of carrying out the kill chain, LaPlante emphasized. “That is, how are we going to sense, how are we going to detect, how are we going to deliver the effect, how is all that going to be done in an environment where I have available—to me and to the adversary—electromagnetic warfare? I have the ISR, the battlespace awareness that I have to be doing all the time, and the communications.”

LaPlante said the LRS-B has to be able to penetrate enemy defenses on its own, but the big question—and one he said is haunting every combat program these days—is what it can do without help from other platforms

“There’s going to be a minimal level of capability that [the LRS-B] will have to be able to do organically, for lots of reasons,” he said. “The obvious reason is, you can’t always assume that you’re going to have the other aspects of the family of systems.” Also, the combat environment will be thick with “the cyber threat, the jam threat,” and it will have to operate under those conditions.

Although the family of systems is “better operating together, … and we’re working toward that, … from almost a resiliency perspective, some minimal capability” must be resident on the bomber.

LaPlante said, broadly, “For as long as we can,” the Air Force will try to “make sure … platforms can do as much of the kill chain as they can” organically. “The magic is in the trade” between capabilities and systems. Still, there’s “only so much [volume], power, and weight available,” and any capability “has to earn its way on.”

Will the first LRS-B delivered be capable of combat operations in a dense threat environment? “Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” LaPlante answered.

However, “at some point, you can’t do it with a single platform,” he admitted, and that underscores “the power, just from a geometry perspective, of bringing in multiple platforms and multiple capabilities.”

Lessons Learned

The LRS-B will very much be developed with an eye toward achieving desired effects, he said, and they don’t “all have to come from the traditional single platform itself” and involve not only kinetic but nonkinetic effects.

LaPlante said he’s satisfied with the level of technology on the LRS-B, but “what I want to put the emphasis on in the next few years is the feeder line—the pipeline—for the next versions.” He said in previous programs, there has been a tendency to assume that new technologies for later variants will simply appear or be offered by the contractor through independent research and development.This is wrong, he insisted.

“My experience is, it’s not enough. The government has to invest its own money as well, in higher, more cutting-edge technologies … to provide that feeder pool to future upgrades.” It doesn’t do any good, he said, “to build an adaptable airplane … if you don’t invest in the ecosystem that provides the potential future innovation.” He’s been urging the Air Force Research Laboratory to think about the sequence of new technologies that will feed future bomber upgrades and make sure they take that application into account when they invest in new science.

Another challenge will be working with systems the Air Force knows it will still have in the inventory 20 years or more from now. “There’s a mixture in there of legacy capabilities as well as new stuff,” LaPlante noted, and “the trick is, of course, … how you transition that mix as we go into the future.” That is not how the acquisition system has traditionally operated, he pointed out. “This is a nonplatform-centric way of thinking about the problem.”

What the Air Force has learned from the F-35 is to make cost a key performance parameter, a tradable attribute alongside any of the others of the aircraft, and to ward off loading up the initial block with too much technology risk. The LRS-B is “different [from] anything we did on F-35.”

The other lesson from F-35 is “concurrency,” LaPlante asserted. “Err on the side of getting as much development done as you can before you start to do production.”

The LRS-B is being managed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which was set up in 2003 to quickly field urgently needed systems by bypassing the usual arduous bureaucracy. Previous publicly acknowledged efforts include an air defense system around Washington, D.C., and the development of the X-37B orbital test vehicle.

“In the phase [the bomber is] in now, it makes sense” to run it out of the RCO, LaPlante said. “That may or may not be the case in the future.” Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief Frank Kendall said that “Skunk Works-type” programs—borrowing Lockheed Martin’s name for its quick-turnaround secret projects shop—may be the best way to speed up programs and reduce their cost.

Given all that USAF must buy in the 2020s, does the bomber have to be bought within a specified period of time in order to afford the other projects

LaPlante doesn’t think so. “This is so foundational that it’s one of those things we’re going to get done,” he said. It will not be rushed to get it bought within a certain time frame, he said. “This is one of the … things we know we have to do.”