As the U.S. Air Force approaches a source-selection decision on the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), it’s worth reflecting on how important this decision is for the nation’s future military capabilities and the Defense Department’s often-maligned acquisition process. 

There is a demonstrated need for LRS-B. In both deterrence and warfighting, the U.S. military has long benefited from having aircraft with the range and payload that can penetrate air defenses and hold any target at risk. The bomber’s range provides broad geographic coverage; its mix of modern stand-off and shorter-range munitions and stealthy characteristics—for at least the B-2 and future bombers—complicate air defenses and can efficiently deliver precision effects on multiple targets within hours. 

Bombers are dual-capability assets used for both nuclear and conventional missions. The bomber force continues to play a critical role in supporting nuclear deterrence, and precision-guided weapons have enabled warfighters to take full advantage of the bomber’s large payload. This dual capability makes the new LRS-B a cost-effective investment and a logical place to start leading into modernization of the nuclear triad. 

The combination of stealth, range and payload—and broad applicability, from supporting special operations forces to conducting strategic raids or sustained campaigns—translates into responsiveness and strategic flexibility for combatant commanders. Past bomber acquisition failures have left today’s bomber inventory with only 96 combat-coded aircraft averaging more than 37 years in age. This fleet is too small, too old and dependent on too few of its most capable aircraft, the 20 stealthy B-2s. Recapitalizing the bomber force structure is long overdue. 

The acquisition approach is sound. Following the department’s cancellation of the Next-Generation Bomber in 2009, I was determined to craft a successful bomber program. Throughout 2010, the Air Force and Defense Department reviewed more than 28 studies conducted since 1995 on long-range strike. Acquisition lessons learned from the restructured KC-X tanker competition and other programs were carried over into LRS-B. 

We focused on setting affordable, realistic and achievable requirements up front. We looked at mature technologies from a variety of current programs and made informed trade-offs at the outset to control costs and technical risk. We took a “family of systems” approach, recognizing that the bomber did not have to do everything itself and would be part of a larger joint portfolio of ongoing intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR), communications, electronic warfare and weapon programs and capabilities essential to long-range strike and other missions. 

All this work culminated in a 2011 classified memorandum, approved by senior Pentagon leadership and signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which outlined details of the new LRS-B program. 

Details should remain classified. A notable difference between the tanker and bomber acquisitions is the paramount need to protect U.S. advantages in sensitive stealth-related technologies, which limits public discussion of LRS-B program content. Congressional defense committees have procedures in place for overseeing classified programs and have been authorizing and appropriating LRS-B research and development for several years. Nonetheless, as the source-selection decision nears, now would be a good time to revalidate with Congress what can and cannot be discussed openly about this program. 

A disciplined source selection is crucial. The LRS-B is proceeding beneath the umbrella of the Pentagon’s “Better Buying Power” initiatives, and both the House and Senate have pending legislative proposals in their defense authorization bills for acquisition improvement. This environment will bring additional scrutiny to how well the Air Force and Defense Department have managed the LRS-B source selection. LRS-B is among several recent acquisition programs emphasizing more deliberate capability trade-offs, more careful use of contract types and streamlined program management. Given the ever-present potential for protest, this program especially calls for an extra dose of discipline and attention to detail in the source-selection decision. The bomber force structure is long overdue for recapitalization. Learning lessons from failed bomber and other difficult acquisition programs, LRS-B has been structured for success. 

The nation cannot afford any further delays. We need to commit to this program and stick with it. Moving forward and retaining congressional and industry confidence in the Defense Department’s acquisition process now depend on a solid source selection.