Just like a stealthy bomber, Air Force Chief of Staff Norman Schwartz’s comments yesterday on the new bomber program came out of the blue and caused a good bit of shock. The Pentagon requested this particular aircraft in January with the objective of it carrying a conventional and nuclear payload, but Schwartz dropped a surprise on the House Armed Services Committee: the new approach will be “not to certify [the nuclear mission] immediately. And the reason is that we're trying to control costs.”
What changed? Well, maybe nothing.
Observers knew all along that the nuclear mission was a late addition onto this platform. Weeks before Secretary Gates announced the program, Schwartz was being cited in the media speculating that the jet would not be hardened against electromagnetic pulses, part of the aftershock of a nuclear detonation. And a few months earlier, Air Force Secretary Michael Donnelly indicated that “while recognizing the continued need for the nuclear mission, we're approaching [long-range strike] capabilities mainly from conventional perspectives.”
So it’s possible that the debate about including this mission never really ended and that Schwartz’s comments yesterday are evidence that it continues to bubble beneath the surface. Or it could be that wrapping in the nuclear mission so late left too little time before the announcement to get the cost projections nailed down.
All of that is just speculation, of course. Only one thing is really clear, and that is that no one knows what any of this actually means in cost terms. What is the marginal cost of adding nuclear capability? Of certifying that capability? Given the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the program, until CBO or GAO step up, these and most other questions are going to remain open.
* For those interested in the marginal costs of nuclear capability, the closest estimate we’ve seen (p. 78) is that Engineering and Manufacturing Development costs increase by 6-8%. That is only one of many stages of acquisition, however, and the data dates to 1996-2001 period.