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Experts Say Air Force Drastically Underestimating New Bomber Cost

The U.S. Air Force's planned next-generation heavy bomber could have a final price tag that is nearly 50 percent higher than what the service is currently projecting, Bloomberg reported on Friday.

The Air Force in 2010 projected it would cost $550 million to manufacture each of the 100 envisioned new long-range strike bombers. However, when the expense of research and development is factored in, the cost for each nuclear-weapons capable aircraft rises up to $810 million, measured in 2013 dollars, according to estimates from three defense specialists.

Congressionally imposed limits on military spending are expected to bring heightened attention to the Air Force's funding of the bomber, which the service says is one of three must-have new weapons.

Few details have been released about the specific capabilities the long-range aircraft is intended to have, other than it is to be capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional warheads. Though the "baseline aircraft" would use a pilot in the cockpit, the plane could be engineered to "enable future unmanned capability," according to an Air Force project summary.

"The Air Force has zero credibility on start-of-program estimates unless and until it ponies up real details about the bomber and its acquisition plan," Project on Government Oversight analyst Winslow Wheeler said in an e-mail cited by Bloomberg. "It is a fool's errand, or worse, to pretend the cost stated now is anything but a bait-and-switch buy-in gambit."

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh in a November Q&A with journalists said efforts would be made to keep the bomber's cost in line with the $550 million-a-plane estimate.

"What we don’t want to do is try to reach into some level of technology that’s impractical," Welsh said. Doing that causes costs to "start to get out of control and your requirements start to drift. ... We are not going to go there."

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