Cover: Bomber R&D Since 1945

Bomber R&D Since 1945

The Role of Experience

Published 1995

by Mark A. Lorell


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Introduction and Overview

Past and ongoing RAND research suggests that the role of experience—of steadily building up and maintaining expertise over time through constant "learning by doing"—plays a critical role in the cost-effective design and development of successful military aircraft. Yet most of the evidence supporting this statement is anecdotal. Achieving a better understanding of the role of experience in military aircraft R&D may be crucial for maintaining a viable U.S. industry-base capability for the future in an era of declining R&D budgets, few new program starts, and industry contraction. This report attempts to discover insights and clarifications about the role of experience in military aircraft R&D through a systematic and thorough review of the overall historical record from the early 1940s to the present of the major prime contractors in developing new bomber aircraft.[1] This research complements and supports other theoretical and historical research reported elsewhere.[2]

Our analysis uses the distinctions regarding aerospace contractor capabilities developed by Hall and Johnson (1968). These two analysts argue that three types of capabilities are resident in the aerospace industry: general, system specific, and firm specific. General capabilities are possessed by all active contractors in the industry and are necessary for all firms to function and survive in the industry. System-specific capabilities are only possessed by certain firms that specialize in specific types of aerospace systems. We argue that system-specific capabilities are critical for successful bomber R&D and are directly related to experience in developing bombers. Firm-specific capabilities are possessed by only one or a handful of firms and arise from unique activities or a combination of all activities of that firm. Firm-specific capabilities are also largely a product of experience. However, we determine that firm-specific capabilities have often been extremely important during the history of bomber R&D and have not always been the result of experience in bomber development. We conclude, however, that both system- and firm-specific capabilities are necessary for contractor success.

For analytical purposes, this report divides the five decades since World War II into three broad periods of bomber development. Each period is characterized by different clusters of dominant technology challenges, military requirements, procurement environments, and attitudes toward the role and importance of the heavy bomber.

The first period covers about 15 years from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1950s. It is characterized by the central role of the bomber in U.S. military planning in the era dominated by nuclear weapons and the doctrine of massive retaliation. More importantly, it is a period of dramatic technological change and innovation, when the government funded large numbers of procurement and technology demonstration programs.

The second period stretches from the beginning of the 1960s into the mid-1970s. It is characterized by increasing doubts about the role and utility of the strategic bomber, as national leaders discarded the massive retaliation doctrine in favor of flexible response, with its greater emphasis on conventional operations. A combination of technology trends, the emergence of new weapon systems, skyrocketing R&D costs, dramatic changes in procurement approaches by the government, and changing doctrine led to a period of great uncertainty in bomber R&D. Not a single new bomber completed development during this period.

Finally, the third period, which extends from the mid-1970s to the present, is dominated by the stealth revolution. Similar to the first period, this period is characterized by dramatic advances in technology that breathe new life into the strategic bomber and shake up the existing leadership ranks in bomber R&D among aerospace contractors.


Based on our examination of the history of bomber R&D in the United States since the mid-1940s, we conclude that:

  • Experience matters. Prime contractors tend to specialize and thus develop system-specific expertise. For most of the period under consideration, successful contractors built on a clear and uninterrupted progression of related R&D programs, as well as design and technology projects. A strong experience base in specific types of military aircraft R&D or in specific technology areas appears to have been extremely important. Special measures for maintaining the experience base may be critical for a viable aerospace industry capable of meeting future military requirements.
  • The historical evidence indicates far less correlation between expertise in commercial transport development and successful bomber R&D than originally anticipated. However, there appears to be a strong link between expertise in fighter development and bomber R&D. Therefore, commercial aircraft development programs are unlikely to provide the necessary experience base for future military aircraft R&D programs.
  • During periods of normal technological evolution, high intra-industry entry barriers prevent prime contractors from changing their areas of specialization, further suggesting the importance of system-specific expertise. During periods of radical technological change, however, entry and success in new areas of specialization take place, causing major changes in R&D leadership. This suggests that a dynamic military aircraft industrial base may require more than two or three prime contractors or specialized divisions.
  • Over the last 50 years, dedicated military R&D conducted or directly funded by the U.S. government has been critical in the development of new bomber capabilities. Major new breakthroughs in bomber technology, design approaches, and concepts have come far more often from government labs than from the commercial sector. As a result, the contribution of "dual use" technology to future military aircraft design and development may be relatively limited.

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  • [1] Our analysis covers dedicated heavy (strategic) and medium (tactical) bombers but excludes "attack" aircraft, such as the A-7 or A-10, and fighter-bombers, such as the F-4E or F-15E.
  • [2] Michael Kennedy, Susan Resetar, and Nicole DeHoratius of RAND are preparing a report that addresses the main preliminary findings of the larger research effort, which presents a conceptual framework and preliminary observations for assessing military aerospace design and development capability.

Research conducted by

This research project was sponsored by the Air Force Acquisition Headquarters and the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It was performed within the Resource Management and System Acquisition Program of RAND's Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND monograph report series. The monograph/report was a product of RAND from 1993 to 2003. RAND monograph/reports presented major research findings that addressed the challenges facing the public and private sectors. They included executive summaries, technical documentation, and synthesis pieces.

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