The XB-70 Valkyrie would have been an amazing weapon of war. It had one mission: Strike Russia with nuclear weapons – It was based on some good ideas. Take the fastest and largest U.S. bomber and let it carry nuclear-armed stand-off missiles to strike the old Soviet Union. Make sure that it couldn’t be overtaken by fighter aircraft. Fly it at Mach 3-plus and keep it high at 70,000. Evade radar. In many ways, the XB-70 Valkyrie was ahead of its time. It had a small window to dominate the skies, but the airplane met a quick demise.
The XB-70 Valkyrie Became Outdated Fast
1945 has documented the rise and fall of the XB-70 Valkyrie here and here. Developed in the early 1960s, the Air Force plowed some serious money into the XB-70. Each airplane was going to cost $24.5 million, or $237 million in today’s dollars. Two-thirds the size of a football field and weighing 21,000 pounds, the airplane was meant to carry nuclear ballistic missiles. Proponents of the airplane soon found out that the Soviet Union was developing surface-to-air missiles that could take down the Valkyrie. The idea that the airplane could deploy its own ballistic missiles became an outdated concept.
Valkyrie Compared to the Spruce Goose
This wasn’t the first time the U.S. military abandoned a record-size airplane that never lived up to its billing.
Eccentric millionaire playboy Howard Hughes had his own boondoggle during World War II in his dream project called the “Spruce Goose.”
During the war, the United States was losing an inordinate amount of cargo shipping to German submarines. The idea behind the Spruce Goose was that an extremely large cargo plane could take the reins from merchant marine ships and transport men and material over the Atlantic.
The Spruce Goose was born.
At the time there was a shortage of steel and aluminum, so Hughes decided to make it entirely of wood. It was a flying boat – the biggest ever built. Originally developed in 1942, the Spruce Goose sat out the war due to many delays and cost overruns.
Its first flight was in 1947 to much fanfare. It only flew one mile at an altitude of 70 feet. Congress, the media, and the general public could not believe that the Spruce Goose performed in such a disappointing fashion. Despite this acquisition failure, Hughes inexplicably kept it on standby with a crew to maintain it in a special hangar until he died in 1976.
What Else Could the XB-70 Do?
After the XB-70 was considered obsolete, proponents scrambled to get the giant airplane a new mission. Two were being used for testing in the mid-1960s. What about making the Valkyrie a civilian airplane? It could fit 80 passengers. It could have been a flying hospital. These ideas were tried and ultimately failed for cost and practical reasons.
Lesson Learned in Defense Acquisition
What are the lessons learned from the XB-70? First, make sure airplanes have a future concept that is 10-times more innovative than the enemy’s defenses, or at least considers present and existing capabilities.
Second, be careful about the price tag.
Third, ensure that the concept and prototype do not enter the Valley of Death – when an acquisition program fails to reach full maturity and the project is canceled.
Fourth, fail fast and shut it down, or else the idea ends up on life support for decades, sort of like the Spruce Goose.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.