The Next Generation Bomber program has been a subject of utterly false smears since its inception. The proponents of massive defense cuts, doing America’s enemies’ bidding in the US, have been trying to get this vital program shut down ever since it was started, but because it has not experienced any cost overruns or details, all they can do is make false claims about how the program was started, about past bomber programs, and wildly inaccurate predictions about the future. In other words, blatant lies.
An example of this type of smear campaign has been conducted by the liberal Danger Room blog, and particularly by one of the contributors therein, David Axe, a total ignoramus whom I have proved dead wrong on numerous occassions in the past. In March 2012, he wrote an utterly false screed for Danger Room and the liberal “Center for Public Integrity” making utterly false claims aimed at undermining support for the NGB. In summary, he falsely claimed that:
1) The Air Force overloaded the previous “Next Generation Bomber” with pricey gizmos, so it experienced cost overruns and “crashed”;
2) Then-SECDEF Robert Gates killed it, was very skeptical of it, and the Air Force waited until after he and Gen. James Cartwright were gone from the Pentagon to resume the program, finding Leon Panetta more agreeable;
3) The B-2 bomber cost over $3 bn per plane and this led to the program’s order cut and eventual closure in 1992;
4) The NGB will cost $55 bn and there are supposedly good reasons to believe it will cost much more than that.
All of these claims are blatant lies. Here’s why:
Firstly, the Air Force did NOT overload the original NGB with any “pricey gizmos”, and that program did not experience any cost overruns. It was still in its infancy, in the study and design stage, when Obama began his first round of massive defense cuts and ordered Gates to kill the NGB. But Gates did not terminate the program – he merely delayed it. As he explained to Sen. Thune in 2009, he did not doubt whether there was a need for an NGB, but rather, what form should that aircraft have, and he also wanted to wait for the outcome of New START negotiations with Russia and the clarification of their impact on the nuclear triad.
Then, in February 2010, once New START negotiations were finalized an once the QR proved the needd for long range strike capabilities, including the NGB, Gates endorsed the project and requested $200 mn for it. (Congress did not yet provide the funding because, being unable to pass regular approps bills, it instead had to pass a FY201 Continuing Resolution (CR), and CRS normally prohibit new program starts. So the NGB program office could not yet have been stood up.
Also in 2010, Gates challenged the services, including the Air Force, to come up with $20 bn in annual savings that could be reinvested in higher defense priorities. The services rose up to the challenge, and as a reward, the Air Force was allowed to reinvest its savings in higher priorities, including – and most prominently – the Next Generation Bomber, which Gates explicitly endorsed during his press conference on January 6th:
“Finally, a major area of investment for the Air Force will be a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber. This aircraft – which will have the option of being piloted remotely – will be designed and developed using proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity. 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. The follow on bomber represents a key component of a joint portfolio of conventional deep-strike capabilities – an area that should be a high priority for future defense investment given the anti-access challenges our military faces.”
He then requested funding for that program in his FY2012 defense budget request. Sometime thereafter, the program office was stood up. The CSBA, from which the DOD sometimes borrows ideas and which has documented the need for an NGB, endorsed all of Gates’ proposals, including the one to develop and field the NGB.
Gates later reaffirmed the need for the NGB a few more times, most prominently in his final policy speech as SECDEF, at the AEI in May 2011:
“when it comes to our military modernization accounts, the proverbial “low hanging fruit” – those weapons and other programs considered most questionable – have not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed. What remains are much-needed capabilities – relating to air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber warfare, ground forces, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – that our nation’s civilian and military leadership deem absolutely critical.”
So no, the USAF did not have to wait for Gates and Cartwright to leave the Pentagon. The program was started not merely with Gates’s blessing, but BY Robert Gates, as a result of his own (correct) conclusions about the need for it, driven by the vast and increasing arsenals of A2/AD weapons wielded by America’s adversaries, which threaten all American in-theater bases at risk and will force the DOD to operate, more and more often, from over-the-horizon, over intercontinental distances. This requires a profound shift from short-range to long-range strike programs, including and most importantly, the Next Generation Bomber, as Gates astutely and correctly observed in January 2009, just three months before caving in to WH pressure to delay the Next Gen Bomber:
“In the case of China, Beijing’s investments in cyberwarfare, antisatellite warfare, antiaircraft and antiship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten the United States’ primary means to project its power and help its allies in the Pacific: bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them. This will put a premium on the United States’ ability to strike from over the horizon and employ missile defenses and will require shifts from short-range to longer-range systems, such as the next-generation bomber.”
Far from being an NGB skeptic, Gates was one of that program’s biggest supporters – except the short period from April 2009 until February 2010.
As for the B-2 bomber, it never cost $3 bn (let alone more than that) per copy – not even if R&D costs (which were already sunk before production began) are included to exaggerate the cost (as is almost always done). The correct price tag was $737 mn per copy without, or $1.2 bn per copy with, R&D costs.
And the reason why these costs were so high was because the planned order quantity of 132 bombers was inexplicably cut by the liberal G. H. W. Bush administration down to just 21, a woefully inadequate number to defeat even a trivial adversary. If the DOD had bought the 132 B-2s originally planned, each of them would’ve cost no more than a Boeing 747.
Which brings us to the final issue: can the Air Force develop and build the 100 planned NGBs for $55 bn ($550 mn per copy)?
To hear David Axe say it, no. He falsely claims that the costs will likely be much higher.
But that’s utter garbage. There’s no reason to believe the costs will be higher. There is every reason they will be much lower than $55 bn and $550 mn per copy – because they can be.
If Airbus can build A380s for less than $400 mn per copy, the USAF can surely build NGBs for less than that, given that they will be much less complex than the A380 jumbo jets.
There are many ways the USAF can make the NGB cheaper than $550 mn. One would be to maximize the use of off-the-shelf parts, which the USAF plans to use. Another would be to fully fund the research & testing phase and buying a sufficient number of test aircraft (at least 6). Another would be to install capabilities into the bombers in batches. So the first batch would not initially have the full planned capabilities, or the capabilities that later batches would have, until these would be retrofitted into the first batch. Another would be to build the NGBs on the government-owned production line in Fort Worth, Texas.
And still another would be to build far more than 100 NGBs – at least 200. That way, the Air Force would get a two-fer: very capable, needed aircraft being produced at a low cost and in large quantities.
The unit cost of an aircraft is determined by three things: the aircraft’s complexity, the aircraft program’s R&D budget, and the planned production quantities. If you produce few aircraft, don’t be surprised if they cost $550 mn or more per copy. If you produce 200 or more aircraft, they’ll cost less than $400 mn per copy.
Finally, let’s remember that the USAF, indeed, the entire DOD, spends very little on long range strike programs: only $1 for every $20 it spends on short-range strike aircraft and fighters. In other words, the defense budget is currently heavily biased in favor of these short-range aircraft which will be utterly unable to take off if American in-theater bases are destroyed.
It is time to start devoting more money where it’s needed – to long-range strike programs, including the NGB.
 Robert Gates, Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age, “Foreign Affairs”, January/February 2009.