Northrop Grumman [NOC] has been chosen to build the Air Force’s next-generation long-range bomber, a major aircraft manufacturing contract that is worth an estimated $80 billion.
The incumbent manufacturer of the B-2 Spirit bomber beat out a heavyweight team comprised of Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT]. The contract award will significantly shape the defense aerospace industry for decades, experts have said.
The decision to have Northrop Grumman build the long-range strike bomber (LRS-B) effectively preserves Northrop Grumman’s defense aircraft manufacturing plant and spreads the Air Force’s three priority modernization programs evenly among the three largest aerospace players. Lockheed Martin is currently building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Boeing holds the contract for the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker.
The contract awarded to Northrop Grumman has two parts: a fixed-price contract with incentives for reducing cost for 21 aircraft in five lots. The average unit flyaway cost for the contract is $511 million in 2010 dollars for a total of 100 bombers, according to William LaPlante, the Air Force’s chief weapons buyer. That translates to $564 million per bomber in fiscal year 2016 dollars.
The first bomber will field in the mid-2020s and the fleet eventually will replace the Eisenhower-era B-52 and the B-1B Lancer introduced in the late1980s. The Air Force plans to retire the B-1 in the 2030s, the B-52 in 2040 and the B-2 in about 2060.
Since the genesis of LRS-B in 2011, the Air Force has required the winning proposal first to come in under $550 million per copy in 2010 dollars. An independent team of experts outside of the LRS-B program came up with the $511 figure, LaPlante said.
“The award of this contract followed a deliberate and disciplined process,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “We believe our decision represents the best value for our nation. … Our goal in the Air Force is to beat the cost estimate through application of should-cost initiatives.”
The new bomber will have more advanced stealth and electronic warfare capabilities than the B-2. It will be nuclear-capable at its first flight test, but not nuclear-certified until about two years after that. It will also have an open software architecture enabling it to have greater communications and data link capabilities.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who signed off on the official LRS-B requirements shortly after assuming that role, said the aircraft chosen has a “remarkable level of fidelity.” It has been widely speculated that both competitors have operational prototypes that lean heavily on non-developmental technologies but are shrouded in secrecy. None of the officials who spoke Tuesday would elaborate on source selection criteria other than per-unit cost.
“We’re designing the platform to be adaptable,” Welsh said. “This will ensure competition throughout the life of the program” and allow rapid and affordable upgrades to the platform, keeping it relevant as technology and potential threats evolve.