Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Defer Development of the B-21 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 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2017-2021 2017-2026
Change in Planned Defense Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -2.2 -2.6 -3.0 -3.0 -3.0 -5.5 -6.1 -7.0 -6.2 -10.8 -38.5
  Outlays 0 -1.2 -2.1 -2.6 -2.8 -2.9 -3.3 -3.5 -3.7 -4.6 -8.8 -26.7

This option would take effect in October 2017.

Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the 2017 Future Years Defense Program and CBO’s extension of that plan.

The Air Force operates a fleet of 158 long-range bombers: 76 B-52Hs built in the 1960s, 62 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 2040, the Air Force is in the early stages of developing a new bomber—recently named the B-21—that it plans to field in the mid- to late-2020s. The goal of that program is to produce 100 aircraft that could augment and eventually replace today’s bombers. The Air Force currently estimates that the total program (including development and procurement) will cost $80 billion (in 2016 dollars). Other specifics—including the aircraft’s speed, payload, and stealth characteristics, as well as the production schedule—are classified.

Under this option, development of a new bomber would be deferred until after 2026, reducing the need for new budget authority by $39 billion (in nominal dollars) through that year. Those savings include $11 billion that the Air Force has budgeted for development for 2018 through 2021 in the most recent Future Years Defense Program, plus an estimated $28 billion for development and procurement for 2022 through 2026. The Congressional Budget Office based its estimate of savings for that latter period on its analysis of the Department of Defense’s plans for bombers as described in the Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan issued in 2016. Measured in terms of outlays, savings would total $27 billion from 2018 through 2026, CBO estimates.

An advantage of this option is that it would reduce acquisition costs at a time when the Air Force plans to modernize other parts of its fleet of aircraft. Funding would not have to be provided for full bomber production while the Air Force carried out its plan to purchase KC-46A tankers and F-35A fighters and to develop other aircraft, including two types of helicopter, advanced trainers, reconnaissance aircraft, and a replacement for Air Force One. Another advantage of this option is that a bomber program that begins later might be able to take advantage of any general advances in aerospace technology that are made in the coming years. Such advances 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 could 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 before today’s bombers reach the end of their service life.

A disadvantage of this option is that if some of today’s bombers need to be retired sooner than expected, a new bomber would not be available. 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 was deferred and ended 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 that are 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 in operations against adversaries that employed advanced air defenses. A third disadvantage is that fewer bombers would be available to address the recent shift in strategic focus toward the western Pacific Ocean, where long distances and limited basing options would make long-range aircraft such as the B-21 particularly useful during a conflict.