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The Air Force's next-generation bomber comes with a hefty price tag: $550 million per aircraft — and that assumes no cost overruns similar to those plaguing the F-22 and F-35 fighter programs.
At a breakfast with reporters Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz explained why he expects the bomber's sticker price to stay at $550 million a pop.
"If it doesn't, we don't get a program," Schwartz said. "I mean, that was the guidance of the secretary of defense — so either deliver or, you know, you're out of there — essentially was [former Defense Secretary] Bob Gates' guidance. I get it, loud and clear."
The bomber isn't expected to enter service until the mid 2020s, but the Air Force believes it is critical for future missions, so much so that the program was left untouched by recent proposed budget cuts, which include getting rid of 9,900 airmen and hundreds of aircraft.
These cuts come as the military looks to change its focus from the Middle East to Asia.
"There's a recognition in the strategy that as you make the shift from the focus on the [Persian] Gulf area and Iraq and Afghanistan to a more maritime focus, to the Asia-Pacific requirement, that long-range strike in particular, and legs, become increasingly important," Schwartz said at a Feb. 3 news conference.
One lawmaker sounded skeptical about just how important the bomber is when quizzing top Air Force officials at a budget hearing Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
"We've got a penetrating bomber capability from the B-2s for several more decades, and we've got cruise missiles, we've got unmanned stealth strike aircraft," said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. "Why in the world do we need a next-generation bomber?"
While the 20 B-2s in service are capable aircraft, their stealth technology is " '80s vintage," Schwartz replied.
"The reality is that the B-2 over time will become less survivable in contested airspace," he said.
On Wednesday, Schwartz went even further, saying the Air Force needs to improve its technology to meet potential threats from China and Iran.
"Do you think that the Chinese have established one of the world's best air defense environments in their eastern provinces just to invest their national treasure — or, for that matter, that the Iranians have established integrated air defenses around certain locations in their country?" he said.
"I would say they are not doing this for the fun of it; they're doing it because they have a sense of vulnerability. And I ask you: What is it that conveys that sense of vulnerability to others? One of those things is long-range strike and that is an asset that the United States of America should not concede, and that's why [the] long-range strike bomber is relevant and will continue to be relevant."