Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday vigorously endorsed an Air Force plan to build a next-generation strategic bomber, arguing that it would help deter nuclear war and preserve America's global pre-eminence.
"I think the long-range strike bomber is absolutely essential to keep our deterrent edge as we go into the next 25 years," Hagel told reporters after addressing a group of several hundred airmen at this B-2 stealth bomber base in western Missouri.
Hagel later traveled to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, and also planned to visit Navy sailors aboard an aircraft carrier and Army soldiers in Texas this week.
He called the future bomber, estimated to cost $55 billion to $80 billion for as many as 100 planes, "a critical element" of U.S. global power.
The price tag is an issue, however, not least because the Pentagon says it also needs to modernize the two other elements of the strategic nuclear force: the Navy's fleet of Ohio-class strategic submarines and the Air Force's Minuteman 3 land-based nuclear missiles. The combined cost would exceed $300 billion, by current estimates.
Hagel noted that the 20 planes in the B-2 fleet — all based at Whiteman — are operating on 25-year-old technology. The other nuclear-capable plane in the bomber fleet, the venerable B-52, is even older.
Hagel's designated successor, Ashton Carter, is expected to win Senate confirmation in early February. Until then, Hagel will remain in office.
The Whiteman stop gave Hagel a chance to say farewell and to cap a series of visits over the past year to key parts of the nuclear weapons force. One of the major problems Hagel confronted during his Pentagon tenure was breakdowns in discipline, low morale and leadership lapses in the nuclear missile force, but not at Whiteman or among B-2 bomber crews.
The B-2 was developed in secrecy in the 1970s; it has been flying since the 1990s and the Air Force says it will remain in the arsenal well into the 2040s. It remains the world's only long-range bomber with stealth technology that makes the plane hard to detect and track on radar.
Details of Air Force plans for the new bomber are mostly secret, but a Congressional Research Service report last July said the plane could eventually be "optionally manned," meaning it could be flown as a pilotless aircraft for some missions.
The Air Force has said the new bomber is intended to play a nuclear as well as conventional bombing role, although it is not clear how many of the current bombers -- the B-2, the B-52 and the B-1 -- it would replace. The B-1 is not nuclear capable.
The future bomber has not been given a name, although Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said last February that she likes a general's suggestion that it be called "Badass." She said it is one of the Air Force's top three modernization priorities, along with building the new F-35 Lightening II strike fighter and the KC-46 Pegasus refueling plane.
At Whiteman, Hagel got a firsthand look at a B-2 bomber inside its climate-controlled hanger. Afterward he spoke to a group of airmen to thank them for their service and assure them that their work is important and appreciated.
The B-2 force has been free of the training flaws, security lapses and disciplinary problems that have dogged the ICBM force in recent years.