Friday, July 22, 2016

Affording the B-21

If the new Air Force long-range bomber, being called the B-21, is really just a scaled-back version of the B-2, costs per unit could be kept down enough to buy replacements for the aging B-52 and B-1 still in the force structure.

Promised costs of new weapons usually go up--sometimes a lot. This is nothing new and even our early-history wooden frigates cost more than promised (70% more than originally calculated). That's a couple centuries ago.

So designing an affordable B-21 would be an achievement:

Aviation Week last week quoted a USAF program executive (paywalled):

‘[The B-21] leverages three decades of small-scale but persistent bomber work since delivery of the Northrop B-2 Spirit in the 1980s and ’90s, particularly advances in flying wing designs. The B-21 uses mostly mature, existing technologies…’

In short, I think it’s possible that the USAF has reached the point with bombers where it’s being driven to the ‘80% solution’. The B-21 might well be a B-2 ‘mini-me’. Modern computerised design and production techniques will certainly make production of a B-2-like aircraft less costly than it was 20 years ago. If that’s the case, it’s smart—silver bullets have simply gotten too expensive. The USAF might have realised that it has to choose between quantity and ‘quality’ (aka sophistication)—and has chosen the 80% solution this time. The B-21 might be to the B-2 what the Virginia class submarine is to the exquisite but prohibitively expensive Seawolf class—good enough to get the job done and affordable enough to buy.

This could also be an example of using past research for a failed program--in the case of the B-2 "failed" means too expensive to build a lot rather than the poor quality of the plane itself.

As I wrote not too long ago about our procurement system that seems to encourage cost overruns:

I don't know if [recent cancellations of needed but too expensive systems] is hope as much as it is gaming the system.

Seawolf is grossly too expensive to build? Cancel it. Then when we build the new Virginia class subs that use lots of technology developed for Seawolf, the Virginia class sub looks downright frugal by comparison.

Spend ungodly amounts of money on Crusader? Well, the one "bright spot" in Army procurement is the new Paladin PIM self-propelled howitzer that uses the Bradley chassis along with--as I've read elsewhere--technology from the Cancelled Crusader project. Voila! Fast, cheap, and effective!

I'm sure that the 3 DDG-1000 destroyers we will build will live on in future Navy ships as technology developed for this ship is made available for future ships but which will not be cursed by having the development costs of that technology put on their bottom lines.

I just wish the Air Force could at least manage to get in on this. Or will F-35 technology find its way into advanced armed drone aircraft?

Anyway. I'm no procurement expert. But we're either getting good at making weapons lemonade out of technology lemons; or our procurement bureaucracy and their industry partners have gotten good out of making program lemonade out of procurement system lemons.

I think the Air Force may be managing this type of exploitation of past research already spent to buy a "more affordable" "new" plane. Good.

I wish our accounting system separated out the Research and development from the actual production costs, but this is better than nothing.