July 5, 2014
Weeks later, we are still awaiting that RFP for the LRS-B, the one that was supposed to be available “within days” back in mid-June. Early on, I had formulated four questions that I thought any policymaker ought to ask about the program. It is entirely possible that a classified RFP has been released to the qualified parties without a public announcement, so I will now wrap up with number 4:

  1. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, how it is going to penetrate serious air defenses?
  2. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, why is a shorter-ranged aircraft inadequate?
  3. If the bomber is to have a nuclear capability, why are ballistic missiles are inadequate for nuclear attack?
  4. Can the performance requested be provided within the cost and schedule advertised?

Cost and schedule are closely related, in that time really is money in military procurement. Spend longer developing a weapon system, and you’ll spend more money paying people for their work through development, prototyping, and testing. Cut the annual funds allotted a program, and the schedule may stretch out—making less efficient use of those people, and raising the overall costs. But what stretches out time in the first place? My colleague Fred Beach at the University of Texas studied this question several years ago, analyzing seven Pentagon procurement programs from each of the early, late, and post-Cold War periods (twenty-one in total). His findings identified four issues that keep programs on track:

  1. a clearly defined and focused objective coupled with a sense of urgency
  2. the maturity of the technologies and their relationship to an increased and relevant capability
  3. adherence to the deliberate steps of advancement from basic science through large-scale production
  4. organizational simplicity in the acquisition process, and technical proficiency in program managers and senior officials 

Let’s think through just where the LRS-B project fares according to these predictors:

[+] Objective. Beach identified three sub-issues within this point. Back in December, I questioned not only the cost, but whether the LRS-B fulfills a tactical necessity for nuclear weapons delivery. The idea that old bombers would fare just fine with new cruise missiles has been around since the cancellation of the XB-70 Valkyrie in 1961. Regardless of that, the USAF may think that the program is of great strategic importance, if only for its own bureaucratic purposes. And the program does seem to have some bureaucratic momentum too, with repeated endorsements from successive rounds of senior people in the Defense Department, at least since General James Cartwright retired. Frankly, I sympathize with Cartwright’s “bomber hating” (as the reliable Air Force Magazine put it), but how anyone perceives the requirement may not be the issue.

[+] Maturity. The good news here is that the LRS-B is supposed to be built only with existing technologies. That might seem a stretch, but as I noted last month, it’s possible that the prototypes are already flying, as those mystery aircraft that were cruising over the Texas Panhandle in March.

[?] Adherence to steps. The US Air Force has a long history of painful experiences with concurrent development, production, and testing. As Michael Brown describes in Flying Blind: The Politics of the US Strategic Bomber Program (Cornell University Press, 1992), concurrency works well with modest engineering challenges, saving some time and money, but it works badly with great technological leaps forward. As Frank Kendall put it in the context of the Joint Strike Fighter program, concurrency under those terms is "acquisition malpractice.” But as Donald Birchler, Gary Christle, and Eric Groo of the Center for Naval Analysis wrote in a 2010 article in Defense AT&L magazine, there may be a sweet spo. In their analysis, the least cost growth has tended to occur in programs where the overlap of RDT&E and procurement spending peaked at a 30/70 ratio. It’s conceivable that a modest LRS-B development effort could hew to that golden fraction.

[–] Simplicity and proficiency. Here, though, we have the problem that won’t go away. As I wrote back in November, the LRS-B might not be cheap, even if the program were well-governed. But too few programs today are well-governed, simply because the US government’s rule book makes that very difficult to do. Consider Beach’s view of the Manhattan Project:

     Using today’s acquisition terminology, the program’s Mission Needs Statement (MNS) was a two-page personal letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt urging its initiation on his judgment that a fission weapon might be technically feasible and the fear that the Germans were pursuing it as well. Its Operational Requirements Document (ORD) was a brief memo from Secretary of War Stimson to the president describing what would be attempted. And its Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) approval was the president’s handwritten annotation of “OK” on Stimson’s memo. The entire process of initiating what would become the single largest scientific and industrial undertaking the nation had ever attempted took less than 36 months (August 2, 1939, to January 19, 1942) and involved a few short letters and memos.

Since the end of the Cold War, the average time-to-fielding for a major American weapon system has doubled, from six to twelve years. And note above that the nuclear attack on Hiroshima took place almost six years to the day after the program began. There may be several factors feeding that beast, but today’s endless procession of PowerPoint and paperwork is certainly one of them.

Two-and-a-half points out of four? Harsh though it sounds, even with the stack of this deck, the LRS-B may actually achieve reasonable cost and schedule performance by the standards of the Defense Department over the past twenty years.

James Hasik is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security.