After a maze of programs and initiatives that lasted a decade-and-a-half, the U.S. Air Force has chosen its next bomber. The battle for the contract between a consortium of Lockheed Martin-Boeing and Northrop has been hard fought and comes with huge implication, and Northrop Grumman has been selected as the winner.
Information discussed during the press conference:
- The aircraft is a complete package concept at this point, including engines and sub-systems. They will not discuss the engine used or manufacturer.
- The aircraft will supposedly cost $564 million per unit.
- Initial Operational Capability is set for 2025.
- Four aircraft were rumored to be part of the EMD phase, but the USAF would not give out the details again in the press conference.
- There is no designation for aircraft at this time.
- Two separate cost analysis were made for the decision, they came within two percent of each-other.
- Industrial base concerns were not a part of decision process.
- The structure of the deal will be cost-plus for development and fixed price for initial low-rate production.
Today’s decision stands to rearrange the defense sector to some degree, as a loss for Northrop Grumman very well could have knocked them out as a prime aircraft contractor all together. This would have left the Boeing-Lockheed consortium, and namely Lockheed, with the Pentagon’s entire fixed-wing tactical and strategic combat aircraft portfolio. Such a reality could have meant that only Lockheed would have the knowledge or capacity to bid on future advanced air combat programs.
With Northrop Grumman being the winner, the sixth largest defense contractor stands to grow not just in wealth and size but also in technological capabilities and know-how. This is especially relevant considering the advanced technological nature of the LRS-B and its potentially half century or longer lifespan. The company will also hopefully bring focus to the program that may have been harder for the competition to achieve. Northrop Grumman does not have the F-35 and commercial airplanes, or a massive massive number of corporate divisions to worry about. They can apply their best people to largely this program alone to see the LRS-B into production. Still, there is no doubt that Boeing and Lockheed could have brought a lot of talent and deep corporate resources to the program if they would have won.
Now the Northrop Grumman will have to follow through and integrate the various pre-selected subsystems and engines into flying prototypes under the next phase of the program, although some of this may have already been done on various test articles and/or even prior clandestine aircraft. Northrop Grumman is thought to have built a next-generation bomber technology demonstrator in the mid-2000s and is known to have produced a very classified stealthy penetrating unmanned reconnaissance aircraft dubbed unofficially the RQ-180 around 2010. Even if these programs are one in the same they could have greatly enhanced Northrop Grumman’s capabilities when it comes to integrating high-end sub-systems in to a very stealthy airframe.
Regardless of speculating on secret projects, Northrop has built, maintained and upgraded the USAF’s B-2 Spirit for 25 years, the world’s only manned stealth flying-wing combat aircraft. They have also recently built the hugely successful X-47B flying-wing naval unmanned combat aircraft demonstrators. The YF-23 Black Widow that lost to the F-22 during the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition was another high-end stealth project they were involved in. Yet it was their Tacit Blue technology demonstrator that flew a decade earlier than even the YF-23 that paved the way for all these aircraft.
Now the biggest fear for the program is cost growth. The LRS-B program has been centered on building an aircraft for a fixed price of around $550 million dollars. If this figure balloons out of control, the program could easily enter a death spiral.
Northrop Grumman has already had some help in this cost control department though. The LRS-B acquisition program was ran through the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, the same folks who streamlined the acquisition of the X-37B space plane. The requirements have remained frozen for years and the goal was to use mature and semi-mature subsystems for the new bomber instead of high-risk experimental new ones. This alone should help keep costs under control and timelines intact, but still these procurement tactics are not a total panacea for potential overruns.
Now there will likely be a formal protest from the Boeing-Lockheed consortium on the decision, although the Air Force seems confident it will not hinder their moving forward much. Maybe they have finally learned from their string of seemingly continuous past procurement boondoggles and executed this competition competently. At this time it appears this may be so.
As for when we will see an LRS-B for ourselves, it may be some time. The initial prototypes may work out of Area 51 before moving to Edwards AFB South Base complex. Or they could be go straight there first after a formal unveiling at Plant 42 in Palmdale CA. At this time we just don’t know. Although there may be a trickle of new concept art coming in the near term, it is likely we won’t see the aircraft’s true form until the USAF wants us to, and that could mean months from now or even years.
Congratulations to Northrop Grumman on their big win.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com