Government officials and aerospace executives have met in secret. Engineers have drawn up blueprints, crafted components, and assembled prototypes, all under strict confidentiality agreements. Lobbyists are prowling the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, smiling, shaking hands, exerting influence.
For the first time in more than three decades, the Pentagon and America’s aerospace industry are uniting to build a big, expensive, high-tech stealth bomber. And that’s a huge deal for the U.S. military as it tries to compensate for another warplane program that has gone outrageously off the rails.
Thirty-four years after aerospace giant Northrop Grumman snagged a lucrative contract to build B-2 stealth bombers for the Air Force, the Pentagon is getting ready to pick a new bomber. The contest, which senior military officials will decide mere months or even weeks from now, pits two teams representing every remaining major warplane-maker in America.
On one side—Northrop Grumman, which lately has been honing its bomber-making skills by developing stealthy drones for the Navy. On the other side, a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which together manufacture almost all of the military’s current manned warplanes. The winner gets to build as many as 100 brand-new bombers for as much as $55 billion in total, replacing 1960s-vintage B-52s and B-1s from the ’80s.
The industrial stakes are enormous. “We expect a pretty robust competition,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s top officer, said in a recent speech.
And for the U.S. Air Force, the stakes are even higher. When costs spiraled upward, the Pentagon canceled B-2 production in 1992. Northrop completed just 21 copies at around $2 billion apiece, compelling the Air Force to mostly rely on the much older and more vulnerable B-52s and B-1s for long-range attacks.
Around the same time, the Air Force switched to researching and developing smaller, more maneuverable fighter jets, including the radar-evading F-22 and the brand-new, stealthy F-35 that's just now entering service.
The F-22 had its share of developmental difficultures, but the F-35 in particular has been a disaster. Arguably too slow, too sluggish and too lightly armed to defeat the latest Russian- and Chinese-made fighters, the F-35 is also prone to breakdowns, engine fires and software failures. It’s years late and—at a total cost of more than $400 billion—way, way over budget.
More to the point, the F-35 is a short-range jet, carrying just enough fuel to travel 600 miles from base while also hauling bombs and missiles. The Air Force says it needs a warplane that can fly 2,500 miles from base in order to be certain it can reach all the potential targets in the world from America’s existing constellation of airfields in the U.S. and foreign countries.
To go 2,500 miles, a plane has to carry lots of fuel. And to carry lots of fuel plus a heavy bombload, it needs to be big. Airliner-size, even. In other words, a bomber, not a fighter. Before recently, the Air Force imagined it could make do with F-35s, concentrating them at air bases closest to war zones and boosting their range with mid-air refueling from tanker planes.
But that was before China deployed hundreds of long-range ballistic missiles that analysts worry could wipe out the Pentagon’s main frontline bases in the Pacific—and before China and Russia both invented stealth fighters of their own specifically tailored for hunting down and destroying America’s lumbering aerial tankers.
The roughly 2,300 F-35s the Air Force, Navy, and Marines are buying were supposed to man the aerial front lines for the next three decades. But now the Pentagon realizes the small, single-seat jet simply isn't good enough and there aren’t enough B-2s to win an air war all by themselves. It’s counting on the Long Range Strike Bomber to fill in.
“It will give our country the ability to hold any target on Earth at risk,” Welsh said. “It also gives us the ability to conduct extended air campaigns and provides operational flexibility across a wide range of military operations.”
To a great extent America is betting its future as a global military power on whichever team the Defense Department selects to build the new stealth bomber. At the moment, none of the competing companies are saying much on the record about the bomber contest. But both teams have very vocal advocates.
Robert Haffa, a former Air Force colonel who also worked as a Northrop Grumman analyst, explained in an Aviation Week op-ed that his former employer is “the only company to develop, build, field and sustain a stealthy, long-range strike aircraft—the B-2 bomber.”
But the competing team of Boeing and Lockheed are a bigger and more productive conglomerate with deeper pockets, according to Loren Thompson, an aerospace consultant who has received money from both firms. “During the last three decades, Boeing and Lockheed Martin together have been lead integrators for 95 percent of the Air Force’s bomber and strike aircraft,” Thompson wrote in his own Aviation Week op-ed.
The contract award, when it finally comes reportedly some time this fall, will be the culmination of an 11-year process.
The Air Force first floated the idea of a next-generation stealth bomber back in 2004. The goal—to deploy the new warplane by 2018. The flying branch dabbled for a few years, basically just brainstorming what a 21st-century bomber should look like. But in 2009 then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the service to start over developing the bomber—and to take it more slowly, with the first planes ready for combat by the mid-2020s.
The Long Range Strike Bomber program was the result. Wary of the cost overruns that plagued the B-2, F-22, and F-35, the Pentagon put a cap on the program’s budget—$550 million per plane, perhaps $1 billion including R&D. That’s roughly half what a B-2 cost. To save cash, the new bomber could “borrow” components such as engines and radars from existing plane designs.
But the Long Range Strike Bomber still needs to be an impressive warplane, able to fly great distances while hauling tons of weaponry—including nuclear bombs—and avoiding enemy defenses. Stealth would be key. The new bomber would have to dodge detection by radar, infrared sensors, and even the naked eye. And the plane could also be “optionally manned,” meaning that it can be flown remotely like a drone for missions too dangerous or dull for a human pilot.
The two-man, four-engine B-2 accomplishes those things by absorbing and scattering radar waves, burying its hot engines deep inside its wing-shaped body and climbing and diving to avoid producing telltale contrails. The Long Range Strike Bomber would need to do the same, and potentially more, in order to outpace efforts by Russia, China, Iran and other countries to develop new sensors capable of defeating the B-2’s stealth.
In May 2011, Ashton Carter, then the Pentagon’s top weapons-buyer under Gates, flew to a secretive Air Force facility in Palmdale, California. There he met separately with executives from Northrop, Boeing, and Lockheed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Exactly what Carter said at the meetings remains a secret. But it’s obvious enough what happened after that apparently fateful confab in Palmdale. The Pentagon started spending money on the Long Range Strike Bomber—and fast. With Congress mostly toeing the line, spending on the new bomber ramped up from $200 million in 2012 to $1 billion in 2015. The plan is for the Defense Department to shell out no less than $3 billion for bomber development in 2018 and more and more annually for years to come.
The money ramped up so quickly that Jeremiah Gertler, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, got suspicious. Gertler wondered what the program was spending all that money on. After all, the early years of a big defense program tend to be cheap, as engineers sketch blueprints and tinker with basic technology.
By contrast, the new bomber program started burning through large sums of money pretty much immediately, leading Gertler to suspect that the Air Force, Northrop, and Boeing-Lockheed had prepped some of the plane’s major components potentially years in advance. “This may indicate that significant LRS-B development has already been completed, presumably in classified budgets,” Gertler wrote in a briefing.
With the money flowing, the Air Force turned over responsibility for the bomber program to an upstart crew with the defense establishment. The so-called Rapid Capabilities Office is a small, aggressive managerial team based in Washington, D.C., that's most famous for overseeing the mysterious X-37B robotic space shuttle that Boeing built for the Air Force a few years back. The theory was that a small team could make better decisions, faster, than a big team could.
It’s a sound theory. “Innovations tend to be produced by small teams with short schedules, tight budgets and strong commitments to simplicity,” explained Dan Ward, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the author of The Simplicity Cycle.
Sure enough, by this September both Northrop and the Lockheed-Boeing team had reportedly built full-scale or miniature prototypes and had even tested them in wind tunnels. “The risk reduction is done. The designs are technically mature. And we’re ready to move,” an unnamed official told Aaron Mehta of Defense News, adding that the prospective new bomber designs are already proving to be stealthier than the B-2.
The implications are huge. Once the Pentagon picks a winner, the bomber development will accelerate even faster. The Air Force wants the first squadron of planes to be ready in a decade or less, a development timeline half as long as the F-35’s.
And just in time. Because by then, the Air Force will be saddled with a huge number of F-35s plus a smaller force of old bombers that officials worry can’t survive in a full-fledged war with Russia, China or another determined foe. In the 2020s, America will need a new bomber bad.
So badly that the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a Washington, D.C.-think tank that at one time had close ties to the Pentagon—Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work is a former CSBA analyst—recommended last year that the military invest more in the Long Range Strike Bomber. And what did the think tank recommend the Pentagon cut in order to pay for more bombers?
F-35s, of course.