In the Dark

09.22.14 9:45 AM ET

Is the Pentagon’s $55 Billion Stealth Bomber Too Big a Secret?

The secrecy surrounding the new ‘Long Range Strike Bomber’ is more expansive than any aircraft program of its size since the 1980s. What are the generals and contractors hiding?

Like a dark planet that can only be detected by the visible orbits it perturbs, the Air Force’s new $50 billion Long Range Strike Bomber project will be ever-present but invisible in defense budget debates in the next few months. Sometime in early 2015, either a Boeing/Lockheed Martin team or Northrop Grumman will get the contract to design and build the new airplane.

But almost everything about it is secret, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The world of classified defense projects didn’t get the memo when a 2007 presidential candidate promised “the most transparent administration in history.” (It never does.) The black world rumbles on: mystery aircraft over Amarillo; public affairs officers discovering three-airplane B-2 missions that they previously categorically denied had happened; another burst of new construction at Groom Lake and mysterious movements  at Edwards Air Force Base, with its more-secure southern sector being cleared of some unclassified activity.

Public information on the Long Range Strike Bomber comprises three basic numbers—a $550 million unit acquisition cost, an 80-to-100 aircraft fleet and a 2025 in-service date—and a budget profile out to 2019. Pentagon leaders have now confirmed speculation that the contract will be awarded next year. Together with industry executives, they have dropped hints that the work “leverages investments” made earlier—most likely, secret X-plane test programs that were started to support LRS-B’s precursor, the Next Generation Bomber, which was planned for 2018 delivery but was canceled in 2009.

The secrecy surrounding LRS-B is more expansive than any aircraft program of its size since the 1980s. Even the demonstrators that preceded the Lockheed Martin F-22 stealth fighter were acknowledged five years before source selection, and were shown in public before that decision was taken.

On the secrecy spectrum, LRS-B is more like two other Cold War programs, the B-2 stealth bomber and the Navy’s A-12 Avenger II carrier-based attack jet. Both of those were fundamentally misdirected by people working inside the security bubble. The B-2 was made later and more costly by a well-intentioned move to make the bomber capable of attacking targets while it’s under-the-radar, at less than 1,000 feet—a capability that has never been used and almost certainly never will be used. The A-12’s requirements—including long range and a weapon load bigger than a World War II heavy bomber—were probably unobtainable, short of magic. Handing the job to the less qualified team, after Northrop and Grumman refused to sign a fixed-price contract, doomed the program.

That said, there has been a good deal of sensible work on the LRS-B requirement. From all accounts, it is designed as part of a family of systems rather than an all-capable Battlestar Galactica—the chief criticism thrown at previous attempts at a new bomber. It exploits new developments in stealth technology that should protect it from long-wavelength radars (which threaten the allegedly stealthy Joint Strike Fighter) even for a long time. For a downsized aircraft, $550 million is, at least, not unrealistically low: and it appears that not only is the cost capped, but that major physical characteristics, such as payload and weight, have been constrained as well.

Keeping technical details secret can be defended: the size and shape of a stealth aircraft can guide the development of countermeasures. But beyond that point, secrecy creates its own problems: high costs and weak oversight. If the technology works well, secrecy can inhibit its deployment.

For example, some Pentagon leaders and airpower philosophers are in favor of more long-range aircraft and missiles, which, absent fiscal miracles, mean fewer fighter aircraft. Whatever the merits of this argument, it will get precisely nowhere as long as its advocates can show nothing except a generic black-draped shape labeled “trust me.”

With the exception of the B-1B, every U.S. bomber project launched since 1946 has been shot down or truncated by adversary coalitions including, but not limited to: peaceniks, arms-controllers, missileers, reformers, fighter generals, cheap-hawks, aircraft-carrier fans and boots-on-the-ground gunny-sergeants. Secrecy will not stop that debate forever. As we saw when the B-2 came under attack the moment that it was unveiled, it strangles the pro-bomber case. After you have spent many years and billions of dollars keeping secrets, it looks opportunistic at best to lift the veil when the program is threatened.

It’s not as if secrecy will keep the politicians’ greasy hands out of the machinery, either. California’s legislators already dropped the hammer on Northrop Grumman’s flirtation with a Florida LRS-B design and manufacturing center, by offering a $400 million subsidy for “strategic aircraft subcontractors” (that would be Lockheed Martin). The language was not changed until Northrop Grumman undertook to build the aircraft in Palmdale.

There’s also the risk of the “secrecy oops.” Whoever sold the B-2’s radar operating frequency for commercial use, leading to a $1 billion-plus retrofit, did not know what they were doing.

Secrecy serves a military purpose, but only up to a point. A weapon that is so secret that it can’t be defended, and is consequently cancelled, is no good to anyone.

This column also appears in the latest issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.