Wall Street Journal
Captain Daniel Welch is an Air Force Academy grad who flies the B-52 bomber, which dates from the Truman years. His dad, Don Welch, was a B-52 aviator in the 1980s. Before that, his grandfather Don Sprague flew the B-52 in combat missions over Vietnam.
This noble Welch family tradition is a tribute to the strategic importance and staying power of the B-52. But it’s also a reminder that America’s bombers—which include the B-1 and B-2—are getting old and tired.
This week the Air Force took a big step toward bringing its fleet into the modern era by signing a contract with Northrop Grumman to build 80 to 100 long-range strike bombers over the next decade. Over the life of the project, the contract could end up being worth $80 billion. So it’s important to get this right.
Obviously the biggest reason to get it right is strategic. Technology has traditionally been a strong U.S. military advantage. But when the B-52 was first developed, we could also count on a roughly 20-year lead time over the rest of the world. These days that lead is dwindling, as technology advances exponentially and rivals such as Russia and China are now investing heavily in weaponry and defenses aimed at neutralizing our technological edge.
The main strategic advantage of a long-range bomber is that it gives the U.S. the capability of delivering a heavy payload anywhere in the world within hours. Better technology sharpens this advantage. Take the B-2 Stealth bomber, which can penetrate enemy anti-aircraft defenses without being detected, or fire from a distance with standoff weapons.
Still, our enemies are not standing still. Their anti-aircraft defenses are adapting, and we need the B-3 to keep ahead of them.
These days, however, it’s not enough to design a better plane. We need to get it operational as quickly as possible, within budget and without the delay for which Pentagon projects are notorious. In short, reforming the Beltway’s acquisition culture has become as much a strategic imperative as the weapons.
The chairmen of the two Armed Services Committees— John McCain in the Senate and Mac Thornberry in the House—understand this and are trying to drive reform that speeds up the process rather than adding new layers of congressional review. Too often Congress complains about Pentagon bloat and delay, but its solution is to drag some hapless CEO before a hearing for falling through a trapdoor of the perverse acquisition culture Congress has created.
As a result, the best weapons often find themselves held hostage. Take the B-2: While the stealth bomber has more than proved itself in missions from Kosovo and Libya to Iraq and Afghanistan, the delays and escalating price tag meant the Air Force ended up building only 21 instead of the 132 originally planned.
Mr. Thornberry points out that a big reason for delay is that projects too often depend on technology that isn’t ready for prime time. So in its report to the National Defense Authorization Act (which President Obama recently and unfortunately vetoed), the House included language directing the Government Accountability Office to pay specific attention to this issue.
Across America today the average high school senior with an iPhone graduates with a model many times more powerful than the one she started with as a freshman. If America hopes to remain a credible global power, we need to bring that same speed and innovation to our procurement process—and the B-3 is the place to start.