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Pentagon risks building a long-range boondoggle

In the next few months, the U.S. Air Force will decide which military contractor will win the right to charge the government for billions in cost overruns for the next few decades. Oh, and the winner will have to build a new bomber, too.

They are separate but related questions: How exactly does the military plan to avoid the fiasco that was the previous long-range bomber project, which resulted in a cut from a planned fleet of 132 to just 20? More important, how exactly do manned aircraft fit into the future of warfare? On these and other issues, Congress needs to demand answers.

The first question is more immediate. The $55 billion contract is for 100 planes — which has most budget experts struggling to keep a straight face, given that the previous-generation bomber, the slow aforementioned B-2, ended up costing $2.2 billion apiece. Moreover, the military has gone all-in on its new F-35 fighter, a $400 billion contract that can no longer be scaled back significantly given that 45 U.S. states have some employment stake in its production and a host of allied nations are waiting on deliveries. So if the U.S. wants to slow the annual increases in Pentagon budgeting, as it should, something else will have to give.

On that score, one aspect of this contract is already worrisome. There are only two bidders on the nascent project: Northrop Grumman, which built the B-2, and a joint bid from Lockheed Martin and Boeing. This has led to concerns that the loser may quit the combat-aircraft industry entirely, further consolidating the so-called defense-industrial base. As concerning as this is, however, it cannot be a consideration in choosing the winner. ...