The U.S. Air Force has struggled for years to develop a new long-range bomber to complement its existing fleet of B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers dating from the 1960s, ’80s and ’90s, respectively.
The rise of China as a regional power compelled the Air Force, in 2006, to begin design work on a radar-evading “stealth” bomber capable of striking heavily-defended targets within the Chinese heartland from secure American bases in the Pacific. But the basic design of the so-called “Next-Generation Bomber” grew increasingly complex and potentially expensive – reportedly billions of dollars per copy. In 2009, then-U.S. Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the Next-Generation Bomber.
But the Air Force revived its bomber effort under new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The new “Long-Range Strike Bomber” would be slightly less sophisticated and therefore cheaper than the Next-Generation Bomber: just $550 million per copy for up to 100 copies, with production beginning in the early 2020s. The U.S. Congress approved the first $300 million in development funding late last year. The Pentagon has vowed to cancel the Long-Range Strike Bomber if the total projected program cost exceeds $55 billion. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman will compete for the contract, details of which are a closely guarded secret.
One man has played a central role in building the case for the new bomber. David Deptula retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general in 2010. In 36 years of service, he flew F-15 fighters, helped plan the air war over Afghanistan in 2001 – including long-range strikes by B-2 bombers – and later oversaw Pacific bomber operations. In a landmark 2004 exercise organized in part by Deptula, B-52s flying from the U.S. struck and sank a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship using “smart” guided weapons. In retirement, Deptula has continued advocating for bombers.
The Diplomat asked Deptula about the need for the bomber, the risks to the program and the technologies that could be included.