Hear that distant whir traveling across the sky at 500 miles per hour? Can’t see anything? Convinced it’s a UFO? Do you live in Missouri, the South Pacific, or maybe on an atoll in the Indian Ocean? Perhaps what you’re hearing is one of our very own stealth bombers, relic of the cold war and torchbearer of our nuclear triad (bombers and subs and silos, oh, my!). It’s worth more than twice its weight in gold. Our air force boasts 21. When we moved two of them from the U.S. to our base in Diego Garcia, it was as if the economies of Niger and Rwanda were hurling invisibly through the air. Well, not completely invisibly – maybe with the radar signature of a sparrow. Not bad for a plane with a wingspan of 170 feet and a bomb payload of over 20 tons.
And now, we want to replace or, rather, augment it. The latest issue of the Journal of the Air Force Association reports that the B-2’s purported inability to “prosecute critical daytime targets” led the Defense Department to propose in its Quadrennial Defense Review a “2018 bomber.” Apparently, our assortment of B-1’s, refurbished B-52’s, F-15’s, F-22’s, cruise missiles, and yes, B-2’s will not be able to meet the QDR’s call for an increase in “long-range strike capabilities” of 50% by the year 2025.
But why all of this? At its core, policymaking is about two things: choice under constraint and opportunity cost. Agendas are set, and those in a position to fashion an array of choices wield a considerable amount of power. Programs begin as fantasy, and quickly move to artists’ renditions, constituencies in multiple states, and, soon enough, line items that persist over time. Currently, much of our focus is on the cost and missed opportunities of the war in Iraq. But progressives should keep a watchful eye on the rest of the defense budget and the opportunity costs that it represents. After all, research and production costs for the B-2 were equivalent to the current gross national product of Pakistan, a comparison that if made of our annual expenditures in Iraq would undoubtedly have progressives up in arms. Ironically, as suggested by Robert Kaplan in a forthcoming Atlantic Monthly article, the thinking behind the B-2 was that “the pressure to counteract such a stealthy and powerful nuclear bomber would lure the Soviets into further wrecking their economy.” As we ponder our own economic future, and detect a distant clamoring for the “2018 bomber,” it would serve us well to hearken back to the birth of the B-2.