Long-range. High-flying. Super stealthy. By 2020, the United States Air Force hopes to develop a new type of long-range bomber that will be all of these things. Problem is, the Air Force also wants to spend upwards of $55 billion building a new bomber capable of carrying out strikes with both conventional and nuclear arms. That's quite a pretty penny. But is there a way to support the third leg of America's "nuclear triad" ... on the cheap?

Boeing's B-1 bomber. Nuclear strike capability on the cheap. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As a matter of fact, there may be. As a matter of another fact -- Boeing (NYSE:BA) is already doing it.

This week, Boeing confirmed that it has begun delivering to the USAF a baker's dozen of "new" bombers. Actually, they're old bombers -- B-1 Lancers originally built by Boeing for the Air Force back in the 1980s. But capable of flight at altitudes up to 60,000 feet, and flying at speeds past Mach 1.2, they're perfectly serviceable bombers for most missions. And thanks to a new Air Force program to upgrade the warbirds, America's B-1 fleet could soon be transformed into what the website The Aviationist calls a "brand-new aircraft."

B-1 bomber, showing its stuff, and giving viewers vertigo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To date, Boeing has won three separate "Lot" contracts for upgrading the B-1:

  • A $99.5 million July 2011 award to "integrate ... the Vertical Situation Display Unit in the forward cockpit and ... the Fully Integrated Data Link and the Central Integrated Test System in the aft cockpit" on four B-1s -- upgrades collectively designated the Integrated Battle Station, or "IBS."
  • A follow-on $65.8 million award to upgrade nine more B-1s with IBS, awarded in June 2012.
  • A subsequent third award for $59.8 million, covering upgrades on 10 more planes.

Boeing says the upgrades "provide B-1 bomber aircrews with a higher level of situational awareness and a faster secure digital communication link ... and will make the B-1 cockpit more reliable and supportable." Over the next five years, each plane will be equipped with multiple multi-functional color displays to monitor their data. New wiring, digital avionics, data links, electronic maps, and aircraft performance monitoring computers will also be installed.

With a completion date targeted for 2019, all 62 of the Air Force's B-1s should be upgraded before the 2020 deadline for the Air Force wanting its "new bombers." Best of all, the Air Force will be getting these planes at a very nice price.

Nuclear math
To date, Boeing has won three IBS upgrade contracts to supply upgrade kits, spare parts, and engineering support needed to upgrade 23 aircraft at a total cost of $225.1 million. But the cost of upgrading each incremental plane is falling as the work progresses. At the most recent rate -- $6 million spent to upgrade each plane in Lot 3 -- it appears the Air Force could end up spending less than $460 million to upgrade its entire B-1 fleet.

That's less than 1% of the projected $55 billion price tag for building an entirely new fleet of stealth long-range bombers -- the B-3 bomber project.

How to fight a nuclear war on the cheap
And this raises an interesting question: If the Air Force is on track to refurbish 62 new long-range bombers by 2019, does it really need to spend $55 billion developing a new class of stealth bomber? Granted, with many B-1 bombers aged 30 and older, the fleet will need to be replaced eventually -- but not immediately. The U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command is on record saying B-1s will still be flying well into the "mid-2040s." Similarly, the Air Force's six dozen-odd B-52 bombers are expected to keep flying through 2040.

Are these planes as super-stealth as the planned B-3 bomber? Probably not. But B-52s have been serving America well for decades, and not one has been shot down since the Vietnam War. Stealth-wise, the B-1 is said to have a radar cross section 69 times smaller than that of the venerable B-52, and should be proportionately harder to hit.

That sounds pretty stealthy to me. Maybe even stealthy enough that we can just "work with what we've got," cut $54.5 billion out of the defense budget, and leave the B-3 unbuilt.

This one looks good. How about we take the B-3 off the drawing board? Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.