Not So Fast, Not Cheap, Not Easy
February 12, 2018 7:30 AM   Subscribe

USAF's Controversial New Plan To Retire B-2 And B-1 Bombers Early Is A Good OneThe flying service is making the right sacrifices to ensure the B-21 Raider gets fielded in large numbers while making the B-52 all it can be. (More at Air Force Magazine.)
posted by cenoxo (40 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh good. More killing machines.
posted by schmod at 7:33 AM on February 12


Oh good. More killing machines.

With each bomb a seed for Democracy and Jesus!
posted by Beholder at 7:50 AM on February 12


This guy is really optimistic about the eventual performance, cost, and delivery date of an aircraft not yet in production.
posted by jcreigh at 7:51 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


To say that the primary article is written from a perspective that assumes building higher tech massively expensive human-flown killing machines is obviously an unqualified good would be an understatement. This reads like a sports blogger getting super wonky about the back-office decisions being made on their favorite team, except their team is literally tasked with killing people (euphemistically referred to as "touching" opponents at great range).
posted by tocts at 7:55 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


I find Robert Farley's case for outright abolishing the air force as a separate service compelling, but it will never happen.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:55 AM on February 12 [7 favorites]


This guy is really optimistic about the eventual performance, cost, and delivery date of an aircraft not yet in production.

I'm sure it'll be at least as good as the F-35.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:01 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]


It's a bad omen when they start saying but think of all the other roles this new aircraft could perform! Baselined requirements are all well and good until Congress decides that spending money on a new bomber and a new helicopter is too much, so why not combine the programs...?

I had the opportunity to get on a B-52 a while ago for a program and they are certainly showing their age in certain ways. It's a huge airplane and there's tons of room to cram new hardware on there, but it's seriously lacking in cooling and power generation - one of the reasons for the re-engine program. There's also basically no room in the crew compartment for anything else, which when fully crewed would make a tactical submarine look roomy. It would certainly be an achievement if we end up fielding an aircraft for 100 straight years.

Fun little B-52 trivia - there is a no-shit Dr. Strangelove procedure during a bomb drop mission. There's no way to verify from the crew compartment that the bombs have actually detached and left the aircraft, and flying around (and landing) with an armed bomb on board is obviously kind of dangerous. So, one lucky person gets to open the big submarine-style hatch in the back of the habitable section (after everyone dons oxygen because this immediately depressurizes the cabin), climbs back through the gear bay in to the bomb bay, and uses the good old Mark 1 Eyeball to make sure the bombs are all gone. You're supposed to kick at them if any of them are stuck.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:05 AM on February 12 [44 favorites]


This reads like a sports blogger getting super wonky

Considering Tyler Rogoway used to write for Gawker Media's Foxtrot Alpha, the analogy fits.
posted by bawanaal at 8:21 AM on February 12


You're supposed to kick at them if any of them are stuck.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:05 AM on February 12 [5 favorites +] [!]


Epony..terrifying?
posted by notsnot at 8:23 AM on February 12 [9 favorites]


My brother was an Air Force pilot. He didn't fly the B-1, but told me about a bombing mission he rode on. They lay down a wide path of devastation. Even my brother, who who served in Viet Nam, was in awe of the wide path of bombing and sheer number and size of bombs. If you think about WWII movies and bombers, this is not remotely in the same class.
Payload: 125,000 lb (56,700 kg) ; internal and external ordnance combined.
Unit cost B-1B: US$283.1 million in 1998 ($400 million in 2016 dollars)

How much of the upgrade is a gift to Northrop Grumman?
posted by theora55 at 8:33 AM on February 12


I find B-52s such brilliant, horrible, ridiculous things. They are works of genius in a very real way, and it's astonishing that they are still a useful thing nearly seventy years after they first flew and entire eras of technology later... but all that brilliance is in the service of terrible stuff.
posted by tavella at 8:33 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


B-21 Raider concept art.

Nice of Northrop Grumman to provide a concept photo superimposed over a fiery mushroom cloud.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:40 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Mutual Assured Destruction is a hell of a way to run a planet.

There's also a fascinating article on that site about what all this costs compared to what it used to cost:

(General Hyten) goes on to highlight how the Minuteman I ICBM program met or exceeded all its expectations and objectives, delivering 800 three stage solid fuel rocket ICBMs, silos to put them in, and a very elaborate command and control architecture in just five years at a cost of $17B in today's dollars—and none of it had been done before. Now, even with all we have learned over more than half a century, it takes 12 to 17 years and $84B to build half the missiles, refurbish the existing silos they will sit in, not build new ones, and the command and control architecture is a separate budget altogether.

We are getting played.
posted by BeeDo at 8:46 AM on February 12 [10 favorites]


It's and old joke, but one of my favorites as a kid:

An F-15 was flying escort with a B-52 and generally making a nuisance of himself by flying barrel rolls around the bomber. The fighter pilot gets on the radio and says "Anything you can do, I can do better."

The bomber pilot replied that that wasn't true - just watch. The B-52 continues straight and level for several minutes. Perplexed, the fighter pilot asked, "So? What did you do?"

"We shut down two engines."
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:54 AM on February 12 [14 favorites]


The punchline in the version of the "So? What did you do?" joke I heard was "I went to the bathroom."
posted by Paladin1138 at 8:59 AM on February 12 [14 favorites]


I kind of hope we really are still flying B-52s in the 2050s, because that would mean we're one step closer to the Warhammer 40k "ancient war machines whose origins have been lost to time" future that we as a species so desperately want to create for ourselves.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:02 AM on February 12 [9 favorites]


My Dad was always a huge fan of aviation jokes having been an F-8 pilot himself he loved this one, and I heard it many times:

"A military pilot called for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running “a bit peaked.” Air Traffic Control told the fighter pilot that he was number two, behind a B-52 that had one engine shut down. “Ah,” the fighter pilot remarked, “The dreaded seven-engine approach.”"
posted by Carillon at 9:17 AM on February 12 [9 favorites]


Which will retire from service first the B-52s or "The B-52s"?
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:23 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


84B to build half the missiles

Upgrade costs can almost certainly exceed implementation costs if operational maintenance hasn’t been maintained. And over the lifetime of something’s implementation, operational costs dwarf initial implementation costs.

This is a big part of the mistake with IT and engineering projects. Management gets sold on up front prices, and no one plans out how to ensure the maintenance budget in 10,20, or even 50 years.

That’s not to say we aren’t getting played, just that the higher costs aren’t out of the realm of possibility.

Also, thanks Wretch729, that link was a great read.
posted by herda05 at 9:27 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I'm sure it'll be at least as good as the F-35.

A close relative is a lead with a major part supplier for this airframe. From their perspective, it's less that the F-35 will not be a very capable ultimately, but how much it will cost to realize it's aerodynamic potential. It's overbudget already, the only question is how many billions or trillions to get there? And when, this decade or mid into the next? But they're confident that it will "work", match its design spec, eventually.
posted by bonehead at 9:30 AM on February 12


An F-15 was flying escort with a B-52 and generally making a nuisance of himself by flying barrel rolls around the bomber. The fighter pilot gets on the radio and says "Anything you can do, I can do better."

The bomber pilot replied that that wasn't true - just watch. The B-52 continues straight and level for several minutes.

Then there was a brilliant flash and a shock wave that almost knocked the F-15 out of the sky.

Terrified, the fighter pilot asked, "What the hell did you do?"

"We annihilated a city of over 2 million people."
posted by Splunge at 9:39 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


I'm sure it'll be at least as good as the F-35.

By all accounts this program really is trying to avoid the specific fuckups of the F-35 or Ford-class carriers.

It will be exciting to see what new varieties of fuckup it is pioneering instead.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:40 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


Look. Every plane has a lifespan whether we like it or not. Every plane can fly a limited number of flights before it is no longer combat ready period. While we can do a fair amount of maintenance to rebuild and repair them, there is a limited number of missions - even training ones - that a plane will fly. We do not hold the military aircraft to the same safety standards commercial aircraft are held to. Military planes will work with fewer systems but are pulled sooner because you don't want a military plane to lose its ability to be combat ready. So that means, even without growing the number of planes in our arsenal, we continually have to make more. The good news is that means our military is moderately safer and that US manufacturing still exists.

On older planes, they still last. When parts are needed, we don't go from a massive pool, which work on everything - a lot of components are manufactured just for that plane. So consolidating budget based on supply runs, and mix shifts in the arsenal mean that replacement eventually become a prohibitive. The government has to source and qualify replacement parts when they can't be made anymore, which means the more models, the more systems qualification has to happen... It turns into a continually growing mess. At some point, the only way to get ahead is to retire a model. In this case, it sounds as if this consolidation is a solid move towards actual fiscal responsibility, even if the sensational headline sounds like we are wasting money.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:56 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


The B-21 sounds like the Virginia class submarines, which I understand to be basically "What if we redesigned the Seawolf class so we could actually build them?"
posted by ckape at 10:06 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


Fun little B-52 trivia - there is a no-shit Dr. Strangelove procedure during a bomb drop mission

But these days, you have to provide your own cowboy hat and nine packs of chewing gum.
posted by Zonker at 10:13 AM on February 12


I should be clearer... when I said: We do not hold the military aircraft to the same safety standards commercial aircraft are held to. what I meant was, Military standards are much higher, as are tolerances for failure. This means that you retire a military aircraft much sooner.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:18 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


In this case, it sounds as if this consolidation is a solid move towards actual fiscal responsibility, even if the sensational headline sounds like we are wasting money.

I mean, that was the exact same pitch used for the F-35. The whole idea was that it would replace a bunch of expensive-to-maintain older multirole fighters. And, sure, it might actually be able to do that very well someday, but, literally, at what cost?
posted by tobascodagama at 11:23 AM on February 12


How much of the upgrade is a gift to Northrop Grumman?

That's one way of looking at it, but presumably this is also a way to get more life (and more value) out of the original, and very expensive, research that they put into the B-2. The USAF has to pay to keep planes in the air either way. A newer plane that makes use of the original development work and also takes new development into account has the potential to be a better return on the continued investment.

I mean, it's not the same as a stealth bomber but DC's Metro system has a bunch of equipment that can't be maintained (escalators and some series of trains) and other components that can't be replaced because nobody manufactures them anymore (a lot of the track monitoring stuff). That's also a huge part of why the NYC Subway is in such dire straits, since they've got stuff running on mechanical relays that are years past their designed lifespan. If you have to pay money to run something either way, why not at least get the benefit of the march of technology?
posted by fedward at 11:24 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm cynical, but this reads like PR for Northrop Grumman. Retiring systems that exist and work today, in favor of a system that might, maybe, fingers crossed, exist at some point in the future, does not strike me as a good or safe plan.

The defense industry in the US has not demonstrated that it can deliver products on time and within cost estimates, and the trajectory of the industry's performance is downwards—that is, getting worse, rather than better, over time and with increasingly complex systems. This is not necessarily industry's fault—the government bears much of the blame, due to the insane way it does procurement—but that's the situation, and nobody to date has figured out a solution. We, as a country, just suck at this, and I'm pretty intensely skeptical that NG has suddenly figured it out this time around.

And if the existing systems are retired in advance, then NG basically has the government by the short-and-curlies: if the system suddenly develops an additional 20% overrun in costs, well, that's just too damn bad, isn't it? Once the B-1s and B-2s are safely rotting in the boneyard, there's no going back, so it'll be time for Uncle Sam to dig deep and pay whatever it costs.

Plus, because the US defense establishment leaks like a sieve, whatever technology advantage this system has over near-peer adversaries' systems (the Russian PAK DA and Chinese H-20 come to mind) will likely be nullified through espionage very quickly. In effect, we are the military R&D provider to the world: we develop and foot the bill, everyone else copies—it's been this way since the B-29. I'm not sure why we keep doing it, particularly when in the coming decades the Chinese will have the bigger economy to throw around—we need to be looking towards asymmetric warfare and weapons, taking a page out of the Russian book, not developing more expensive, manned systems that we won't be afford to produce in large quantities and the public won't support using when they result in (US military) casualties.

There is a definite strategic value in maintaining defense industry and ensuring that the US can produce war material domestically, which requires cranking out a plane now and then to keep the supply chains alive—Boeing can't be trusted not to offshore some critical component to China in order save a few bucks during an off year, if it's just producing civilian airliners—but there's nothing about the B-21 that suggests it's enough of a capability leap beyond potential adversaries to be worth it. It seems like the money would be better spent having the same factories turn out B-52 parts, and spend the money on better standoff cruise missiles or stealth drones, or refitting ICBMs to drop tungsten rods on people from space; things that actually apply pressure to Chinese and Russian doctrine. The B-21 doesn't seem to fit the bill at all; it's like something out of the 1980s or 90s.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:39 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Just as a comment, my paratrooper husband has been on (and jumped out of) many planes built before he was born in 1965. When someone asks him why he jumps out of perfectly good airplanes, he says, "Air Force pilots."
posted by corvikate at 12:25 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I should be clearer... when I said: We do not hold the military aircraft to the same safety standards commercial aircraft are held to. what I meant was, Military standards are much higher, as are tolerances for failure. This means that you retire a military aircraft much sooner.

That is not true. Commercial aviation safety standards generally tighter than the ones set in MIL-STD-882 by an order of magnitude. Also, the military is not afraid to hold on to aircraft. How many Boeing 707s are in a commercial fleet? The USAF has a ton of them.
posted by Quonab at 12:44 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


In general, there seem to be more military programs that are taking lessons learned and revising products vs. blank slate/green field exercises. That's probably a good thing.

I wasn't aware that the Virginia class submarines were in that category, but the F/A-18E/F certainly is, and that aircraft is by most estimates way cheaper to acquire and operate than the whizbang F-35 or F-22. In fact, the original F/A-18A/B/C/D was itself a cost saving measure against the F-14 (now retired), and salvaged work put into the YF-17 (which lost a bake-off to what became the F-16, which the F-35 is attempting to replace).
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:59 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Sort of. The F-18 E/F is very close to a new aircraft, using the same name for exactly the marketing effect you describe.
posted by BeeDo at 5:51 PM on February 12


Definitely way cheaper that the other two, for sure. But also less capable.
posted by BeeDo at 5:52 PM on February 12


Bombers are irrelevant. Just strap boosters to a few asteroids of the right size and you can deliver a nuclear-sized punch to the target of your choice.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:24 PM on February 12


An earlier article by Tyler Rogoway, 2/26/2016, Everything We Know About The New B-21 Stealth Bomber And The Looming Battle To Build It.

More about the Long Range Strike Bomber program at Wikipedia.
posted by cenoxo at 11:09 PM on February 12


Military aircraft fly fewer — sometimes far fewer — hours and cycles per year than airliners and civilian cargo planes, and thus can long outlive them in years. In part because of fewer hours and cycle flown, the military also doesn’t have the same type of fuel efficiency and maintenance cost savings needs that propel retirements of older civilian models. (The deserts are chock full of parked civilian jets with vast hours and cycles left on their airframes because newer frames are cheaper to fly.)
posted by MattD at 11:32 PM on February 12


" Terrified, the fighter pilot asked, "What the hell did you do?"

"We annihilated a city of over 2 million people.""


I'm pretty sure some fighters are nuclear capable, I think the F-15E is (according to wikipedia)
posted by Carillon at 11:49 PM on February 12


All USAF combat aircraft except the A-10, F-15C, and B-1 are.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:56 AM on February 13


Almost any aircraft is nuclear capable if you strap a W-78 in the co-pilots seat and don't mind losing the pilot.
posted by Megafly at 3:26 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


« Older Why Do We Need to Sleep?   |   Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.