Insanity is often defined at doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. McCain who late last year began butting in on the Modular Handgun System, is now setting his sights on the Long Range Strike Bomber (known as LRS-B). McCain, whose interference with the KC-X program caused our troops to use KC-135s that are older than their flight crews during the War on Terror and who assisted the Obama Administration in halting F-22 production at 187 airframes, is complaining about the use of a “cost-plus” contract for the LRS-B program, which will spend $80 billion on 100 airframes.
A “cost-plus” contract not only allows the DOD to pay the contractor for the expenses incurred when developing a new weapons system, it also allows for the DOD to ensure the contractor makes a profit. These contracts are very flexible, a particularly useful thing when the goal is to get a system that will hold up over the long haul – and to carry out the research and development that can enable the use of new technology by our troops. These contracts became prominent in World Wars I and II – when America needed good weapons and gear for the troops in large quantities as quickly as possible.
New technology will be a given when it comes to military platforms, and flexibility in contracting can be vital for the troops. In 1942, when American forces discovered a salvageable Japanese Zero in the Aleutian Islands, they acquired data from test flights and examining the aircraft. Grumman was able to make adjustments to the F6F Hellcat that helped the United States sweep Japanese airpower from the skies of the Pacific, but making those adjustments cost money.
Today, America may need a lot of good planes, and quickly. This is particularly true when it comes to the bomber force. The youngest B-52’s been in service since 1962. The B-1B and B-2 are also old – and were victims of truncated production runs (over 240 B-1s were originally planned, but only 100 were built; the B-2 was halted at 21 airframes out of a planned 132). The B-2 ended production in 2000. To get a sense of how much technology has changed in the 16 years since the last B-2 rolled off the production line, keep in mind that YouTube, the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, and the Amazon Kindle did not exist.
This is why McCain’s stated intention to block a cost-plus contract is problematic. The bomber fleet is aging, and the bombers we have are being stretched thin. But also, Russia and China are not standing still. China recently deployed surface-to-air missiles and fighters on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Russia has snatched Crimea from the Ukraine, and has been very aggressive towards neighbors.
If there is a complaint to be made about the LRS-B program, it is that we are not buying enough airframes. Worse, it is part of a pattern. In 1963, the United States had 650 B-52s operating as part of Strategic Air Command. Today’s bomber force of 78 B-52Hs, 62 B-1Bs, and 20 B-2As – less than a quarter of that force. While ICBMs and SLBMs have taken on a large part of the burden of the nuclear deterrent, and precision-guided munitions make each sortie deadlier, neither development obviates the need to have a sufficient bomber force.
McCain’s high horse has already delayed or truncated valuable weapons programs. When America needs to get a lot of modern weapons systems deployed to the troops in sufficient quantities in a timely manner, it’s going to take money. Cutting financial corners on procurement, as McCain is trying to do with LRS-B, could lead to a higher price down the road.
Shouldn’t McCain be looking for the real bargain?