Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Defer Development of a New Long-Range Bomber

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

(Billions of dollars) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2014-2018 2014-2023
Change in Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -1.0 -1.8 -2.7 -2.8 -3.4 -5.0 -5.2 -5.1 -5.0 -8.4 -32.1
  Outlays 0 -0.6 -1.3 -2.1 -2.6 -2.8 -3.6 -4.0 -3.3 -3.3 -6.6 -23.5

Note: This option would take effect in October 2014. Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the fiscal year 2014 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office’s extension of that program.

The Air Force operates a fleet of 159 long-range bombers: 76 B-52Hs built in the 1960s, 63 B-1Bs from the 1980s, and 20 B-2A stealth bombers from the 1990s. Although those aircraft should be able to continue flying through at least the mid-2030s, the Air Force is in the early stages of developing a new bomber it plans to field in the mid-2020s. The goal of that program is to produce between 80 and 100 aircraft possessing global range at a total cost of no more than $55 billion (in nominal dollars). Other specifics—such as the aircraft’s speed, payload, stealth characteristics, whether it will be manned or unmanned, and its production schedule—have yet to be determined. The new aircraft could augment and eventually replace today’s bombers.

Under this option, development of a new bomber would be deferred until after 2023, reducing the need for new budget authority by $32 billion through that year. Those savings include $8 billion the Air Force has budgeted for 2015 through 2018 in the most recent Future Years Defense Program, plus $24 billion for 2019 through 2023. Outlay savings would total $24 billion from 2015 through 2023, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. CBO based its estimate of savings for the latter period on its analysis of the projected funding for bombers in the Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan that the Department of Defense issued in 2013.

An advantage of this option is that it would free up budgetary resources for other priorities during the coming decade. Funding would not have to be provided for full bomber production at the same time the Air Force is also planning to purchase up to 15 KC-46A tankers per year and 80 F-35A fighters per year. (Production of those aircraft is expected to end in 2027 and 2037, respectively, although the Air Force will probably continue purchasing tankers after 2027.) Another advantage of this option is that a bomber program that begins later might be able to take advantage of general advances in aerospace technology that might be made in the coming years. Such technologies might make possible an even more capable bomber or might lead to other types of weapons that would make a new bomber unnecessary or reduce the number of bombers needed. Taking advantage of future technological developments can be particularly valuable for weapon systems that are expected to be in use for several decades. Even with a 10-year delay, a new bomber would still be available by about the time today’s bombers are nearing the end of their service life.

A disadvantage of this option is that it would run the risk that a new bomber would not be available if estimates of the service life of today’s bombers are incorrect and some of them need to be retired sooner than expected. By 2035, the B-52Hs will be almost 75 years old, the B-1Bs about 50 years old, and the B-2As about 40 years old. Expecting those aircraft to perform reliably at such advanced ages may prove to be overly optimistic. Similarly, a gap in capability could arise if the new bomber is deferred and ends up taking significantly more time to field than expected (as was the case for the F-35 fighter program). Another disadvantage is that the Air Force’s inventory of stealthy bombers able to fly in defended airspace would remain limited to the B-2A, which makes up only about 12 percent of today’s bomber force. Larger numbers of stealthy bombers might be useful for operations against adversaries that employ advanced air defenses. A third disadvantage is that the recent shift in strategic focus toward the western Pacific Ocean—with its long distances and limited basing options—will make long-range aircraft particularly important should a conflict arise in that region.