By all accounts, the Air Force’s track record of making bombers the country can afford is dismal. The B-1 program was cancelled mid-stream by the Carter administration after its cost doubled, then revived under President Reagan. The B-2 grew so costly in the early 1990s that the Pentagon ended up buying just a fifth of the aircraft originally planned.
The B-2s are actually not used much now, partly because few targets justify risking aircraft that cost $3 billion apiece in today’s dollars, and partly because their flights by some estimates cost$135,000 per hour — almost double that of any other military airplane.
The Air Force says the new bomber is slated to cost roughly $55 billion, or about $550 million a plane — less than a quarter of the price of the B-2. If costs rise, “we don’t get a program,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently told reporters, citing a 2009 warning by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an airpower skeptic, as Gates cancelled an earlier attempt to build a new bomber.
One of the skeptics is Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 until his retirement in 2005. He says that if $550 million per copy is the target, “you’re talking $2 billion by the time they build the damn thing …. How many times [have] we been through this with bombers? And look where we end up.”