House aims to accelerate bomber aircraft program

A House-passed defense spending measure adds $100 million in funding to an Air Force bomber aircraft plan.

The increased funding at a time of budget crunching comes amid concern that Chinese or Russian missiles could down existing U.S. planes. The Air Force requested only $197 million for the bomber program.

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“We don’t have enough bombers,” said House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who is concerned about the small number of stealth U.S. bombers that could sneak into enemy airspace without being detected by enemy radar and surface-to-air missile systems.

After Dicks and subcommittee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) conferred with industry executives and Air Force brass, defense appropriators added $100 million to the air service’s request.

Air Force and industry officials convinced Dicks that “we might be able to accelerate” the stealth bomber program’s schedule with the additional funding, he said last week.

“The extra $100 million is an attempt to accelerate the R&D on the next-generation bomber program because of the concern that the existing fleet” of B-52 aircraft is “too old,” a Dicks aide told The Hill.

Dicks and Young are worried that the military’s B-1 bombers are not stealthy and could be vulnerable to detection from enemy radars and missile systems, the aide said.

And while the Air Force’s B-2s are stealthy, the service has “only 20 left,” the aide said.

The appropriators opted to inflate the program’s funding line by 33 percent in an effort to have the new planes enter the fleet sooner.

“Previously we had anticipated an [initial operational capability date] of 2018,” according to the aide. “Since that now is hardly possible, the substantial boost of funding in ... 2012 for development of the bomber is intended to assure that the program proceeds more aggressively on requirements as well as conceptual design.”

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group, said, “$100 million will only help with requirements and technology road map definition, rather than serious development work.”

For a program that will ultimately cost tens of billions of dollars, the $100 million Dicks and Young want to add is “trivial,” Aboulafia said.

“Of course, with today’s economic and budget climate, showing support with a meaningful amount of money isn’t likely to happen,” Aboulafia said. “But that’s the primary reason we won’t see a new bomber until next decade.”

After several failed attempts since the middle of the last decade, the Air Force appears to have finally gotten its next-generation bomber program off the ground.

While its likely costs will come in an era of dwindling defense budgets, it has the support of Pentagon brass and many lawmakers. In a 328-92 vote last week, the House defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) that would have zeroed funding for the new bomber.

As first reported by The Hill, Pentagon officials have cleared a service plan to buy between 80 and 100 new bombers that would enter the operational fleet by the mid-2020s.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are expected to compete for what will be a lucrative contract to design, develop and build the new bombers.

None of those firms would comment on what they told Young and Dicks about the additional funds.

The bomber program office would decide how the extra money would be spent, if it is included in a final version of 2012 defense spending legislation. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to craft its version of the bill.