December 30, 2015
LRS-B: Too Big to Lose?
Does building big bombers concentrate too much power in a single platform?
By James Hasik
Since the bloody aerial battles of World War II, both the efficacy of individual bombers and the costs of losing those aircraft have grown dramatically. In 1940, the cost of a B-17 represented the per capita gross domestic (GDP) of 262 Americans; in 2015, the roughly $610 million cost cap on an LRS-B represents the per capita GDP of over 6,000. (Our calculations derive from cost data in Air Force Department fact sheets and GDP figures from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.) With a massive payload of precision weapons—perhaps scores of Small Diameter Bombs—the LRS-B could wreak far more damage. But if shot down before it reaches its target, the loss would be 23 times worse. Moreover, stealth bombers cannot be as rapidly built as B-17s were, so combat losses will be much harder to replace.
This means that a force built on F-22s, F-35s, and LRS-Bs could thus be what Byron Callan of Capital Alpha has called “a glass slipper”—impressive, yet fragile, and not rapidly scalable given lead times with that degree of design complexity. The long run danger, one could say, is that the US could be pricing itself out of high-intensity conventional conflict. The USAF may not like the idea, but a spread of investment in aircraft types at different price points may be operationally important. Even as it buys F-35s and LRS-Bs, the service should seriously consider holding onto A-10s, F-16s, or F-15s for less demanding missions. We are also beginning to hear talk about extending the capabilities of the manned fighters and bombers with accompanying squadrons of drones. Manned-unmanned teaming, after all, to be the forte of Deputy Secretary Work’s next offset strategy.
James Hasík is a senior fellow and Rachel Rizzo is a researcher at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.