The New Northrop Grumman-Built Bomber Will Be Air Force’s Most Futuristic Plane

U.S. Air Force

After years of internal Pentagon fighting to keep the project alive, the air service reveals a builder, but little else.

Northrop Grumman will build the Air Force’s new stealth bomber, which will be one of the most futuristic planes ever built — and for a while, at least, among the most secret.

On Tuesday, the service announced the winner of the contract to develop the Long Range Strike-Bomber, a deal that includes options to buy the first five production lots, totaling 21 of a planned 100-plane fleet. The independent cost estimate for this development phase is $23.5 billion (in today’s dollars), and the Air Force is aiming to bring that down, said William LaPlante, the service’s acquisition head. Service officials have estimated the total value of the program at $80 billion.

The winner beat out a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team.

“The Long Range Strike-Bomber will support America’s defense strategy by forming the backbone of the Air Force’s future strike and deterrent capabilities,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday announcing the winner.

The LRS-B, which will be the military’s first bomber since the B-2 was built in secret in the 1980s, is coming together under a similar veil of secrecy. On Tuesday, the Pentagon released an independent cost estimate of $564 million per aircraft ($511 million in 2010 dollars), down from an earlier estimate of $606 million ($550 million in 2010 dollars), but the actual budget remains classified. The Air Force declined even to release an artist’s conception from the winning bid.

“You can always argue it’s too classified or not classified enough, but the simple idea behind the classification of the program is we need to preserve, as long as we can, the advantage of what we’re doing so that adversaries can’t already be trying to build defenses against it,” LaPlante told reporters last Wednesday.

Some have called the plane the B-3, but Air Force officials said that has not been decided yet. Even when the plane flies at an airshow for the first time, it, like most military aircraft, will have certain equipment that will remain classified.

LaPlante dropped just one hint: “We’re going to do something that, as far as we know, has never been done before on a major platform.”  

Over the past four years, the Air Force has spent $1.9 billion on the secret bomber project, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for acquisition, said.

“As the company that developed and delivered the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, we look forward to providing the Air Force with a highly-capable and affordable next-generation Long Range Strike-Bomber,” Wes Bush, chairman, CEO and president of Northrop Grumman, said in a statement.

Boeing and Lockheed, in a joint statement, said they were disappointed with the decision. ”We are interested in knowing how the competition was scored in terms of price and risk, as we believe that the combination of Boeing and Lockheed Martin offers unparalleled experience, capability and resources for this critically important recapitalization program.”

For the Air Force, the selection of Northrop Grumman marks a huge milestone. A decade ago, the service had hoped to have a new bomber battle-ready by 2018. But Pentagon officials decided that such a plane required so much new and unproven technology that it was more likely to be canceled than reach the battlefield.

“I stopped one new bomber program [in 2009] because I thought it was headed down the wrong path,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a rare appearance in Washington last week.

Two years later, Gates approved the LRS-B.

“I said … you’ve got to design it so you buy at least 100,” the former defense secretary told senators. “And … you have to start with technology that you understand.”

That was an attempt to avoid repeating the B-2’s fate: as technology-development costs mounted, the service’s 100-bomber purchase was cut to 21, and the per-plane price soared past $2 billion.

With the LRS-B, Air Force officials say they are budgeting for 100 planes and will keep the production cost of each bomber at $550 million in 2010 dollars. (That’s $606 million today.) That doesn’t include development costs. The Air Force’s cost estimates peg the program at nearly $80 billion. Todd Harrison, a budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, projects the entire project to have consumed $111 billion when it finishes 25 years from now.

The plane will initially use mature or existing technologies, which should forestall the kinds of cost increases and delays that have afflicted the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and other programs.

“Just because they’re existing and mature doesn’t mean that they’re in the open. It doesn’t mean that any of you even know about them,” LaPlante said.

Still, the plane’s most valuable asset is likely not any single whiz-bang gadget, but its modular operating system. The bomber is meant to be the Linux of aircraft, easily and cheaply upgradeable over the next three decades.

“You deliberately make the first version of it have the basic capabilities that you want and you have all the hooks in there and you have plans to upgrade the next version of it,” LaPlante said.

And a solid plan for easy upgrades helps stave off the impulse to goldplate the initial aircraft. As Gates said, the new bomber “needs to be something that we know we can get off the ground for a reasonable price and then as new technologies become available, integrate them into that system.”

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