The U.S. Air Force chief of staff says the service is not going to go through the B-2 experience again—overdesigning a bomber and then having to buy fewer of them.

Analysts suggest the requirement for the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program could be as high as 200 aircraft as the aircraft begins to replace aging B-1s and B-52s.

The problem is how to take advantage of the new technology without breaking the budget or generating so much political backlash that the bomber program is reduced or canceled. The B-2s ended up costing more than $2 billion apiece because the program was closed down so early.

The 2013 budget request asked that the LRS program receive $292 million. The total through 2017 is $6.3 billion. Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale suggests a per-unit cost target of $550 million per aircraft.

“We see it as an important goal,” Hale says. “I'd like to treat it as absolutely [hard and] fast.”

However, industry executives attending the Defense Technology and Affordability Requirements conference in Washington last week contend the unit-cost target is far too optimistic. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is publicly squeezing the Air Force to keep the cost of the classified project down.

“We are going to make our best effort to not over-design the aircraft,” says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz. “We are intent on ordering a capability that is not extravagant.”

Schwartz calls for delivery of a bomber by the mid-2020s that is capable of intelligence gathering, conducting electronic warfare and linking to offboard sensors. The combination is expected to produce a stealth aircraft that can penetrate enemy air defense, but that is sufficiently affordable to buy in numbers.

The first question then is what is the magic number? The Air Force has called for 80-100 aircraft. However, analysts are saying that twice that number is needed to create a sustainable, operationally effective force, which can continually be modified and upgraded as technology evolves.

“I would double that and look at something near 200 aircraft to provide a credible deterrent force and begin to look at replacement of the entire bomber fleet,” says Rebecca Grant, author of “The Case for a New Stealth Bomber,” a white paper recently published by Washington Security Forum. “I think we see the need for more rather than less.”

“There is also the aspect of credibility,” says Gen. (ret.) John Corley, former chief of Air Combat Command. “That is related to quantity. How credible is a force if you only have a handful of assets, many of which are in depot at any time or are beyond their service life?”

Grant downplays the advantages of an unmanned version of the bomber or an unmanned alternative.

“The bomber is entirely different,” she says. “By the time you look at a payload of 40,000 lb., onboard fuel and the airframe itself, adding a crew and cockpit module aren't that big a deal. We want the value of a manned crew compartment. We are facing a new set of technology trade-offs.”

Some of those trade-offs include non-kinetic weaponry, including high-power microwave weapons, lasers and electronic attack.

“There are things that could potentially be non-kinetic—like a cyber [surveillance or attack] contribution,” Corley says. “The new bomber needs to possess the ability to find a target, attack it and understand the effects of the attack.” He calls for a large magazine, which means small or repeating weapons, long-range radar and the ability to judge the effects of electronic attacks.

“A platform that will be effective for the next 40 years has to have the ability to add new technology,” Grant says. “I'd like to see at least the consideration of adding laser weapons, should those become viable. We know this bomber will have to swim in the information battlespace. And there is a challenge we have not successfully met yet in our combat aircraft programs. [We need to get] communications architectures that talk among the aircraft and deal with ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance]. Getting that right is a major challenge.”

A basic need for the bomber is more speed than the B-2 can provide.

“Stealth needs a new partner in the bomber design—additional speed,” Grant says. “In the F-22 we have a supersonic, stealthy fighter. I believe American industry can create a stealthy bomber with at least some supersonic dash speed. That's another of the technology goals we should work toward as we develop the new bomber.”

“Another basic need is for [additional] stealth, because air defenses continue to improve and proliferate,” Grant adds. “Even modest air defenses create big problems. In 2003, Iraqi forces launched 3,884 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in 25 days and 66% of the mobile SAMs were [not found]. During the Kosovo conflict in 1999, the Serbians launched 894 SAMs in 78 days. Worse is to come.

“In the future we will see far more modern air defense missiles like the Russian-made SA-20 and SA-21, plus the ability to net and integrate them that we've not had to face,” Grant says. “Asia-Pacific adds another element—adversary fighters.” She emphasizes that there is a need for around-the-clock strikes, from an aircraft that “can go anywhere and take any information it [requires].”