The USAF's Next Generation Bomber could get delayed, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned earlier this week. Gates told legislators that earlier plans to deploy the bomber by 2018 - originally mooted as part of the late-2004 review that also cut the F-22 off at 183 aircraft - were made when the economic outlook looked better.
For bomber historians, rather like Douglas Adams' bowl of petunias, the immediate thought is, "Oh no, not again." Since 1960, the Democrats have made a tradition of celebrating their recapture of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. by scrapping the nearest bomber program: the B-70 in 1961, the B-1A in 1977 and efforts to stretch the B-2 beyond 21 aircraft in 1993.
In my view, it was that history that drove Reagan's two-bomber program, launched in 1981: I suspect that the generals reckoned that the B-1B would be too far advanced to get chopped again, if the Gipper was defeated in 1984. So we got the B-1B, which eventually turned into a fine close air support aircraft.
This time, a lot of factors other than mere hostility to large destructive weapons are at play, and a lot of those factors are not readily apparent.
The economic case is real, although we're all in trouble if the current recession continues until the bomber needs really big money (in the early 2010s). The USAF has a lot of recapitalization to do, and nobody at this point has a firm idea of how much the Joint Strike Fighter - which will dominate service aircraft spending in the next decade - will really cost and how many the USAF will buy, the two things being connected. The same goes for tankers and airlift. At this point it might indeed be premature to commit to anything - including a 2018 bomber.
But the move is also likely being pushed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Last May we presented evidence pointing strongly to the hypothesis that Northrop Grumman had jumped ahead of its rivals on NGB - that the USAF's concept was inspired by NG's thinking, based on its earlier UCAV work, and that Northrop Grumman's spook operators had landed a $2 billion contract to go and build a demonstrator. (More here.)
A few years ago I interviewed Boeing's top airliner salesman, Seddik Belyamani. I asked him: "What do you do when you know you're about to lose?" His response: "Argue for delay."
And indeed there are good reasons to argue delay. A later aircraft could be designed around the promising Advent engine technology, for greater efficiency at altitude. It could incorporate further advances in aerodynamics, like active airflow control.
On the other hand, the damn thing could get so expensive that it never gets built at all, which would be fine by Lockheed Martin because it would not compete with JSF for cash.
So this depends to some extent on what is going on at Northrop Grumman. Oddly enough, NGB went all quiet after last year's stories, but there have been a few vague mutterings about things happening this summer, the 20th anniversary of the B-2's first flight. The USAF, too, may have to recognize that if it insists on keeping everything secret, it may never get its bomber.
What are we likely to see, if we do see something? The keyword is 2018. To be in service that soon, NG's team - including B-2 veterans like John Cashen, and other experienced hands such as aerodynamicist Barnaby Wainfan - will probably have assembled something around a lot of known technology and components. But that doesn't preclude innovation - as we saw so long ago with the F-117.
Note: the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment's "Mr Bomber", Barry Watts, is releasing his take on the issue next Tuesday. Stay tuned.