Northrop Grumman has scored the biggest, most important U.S. weapons contract in a decade—beating out a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin to design and build up to 100 new stealth bombers for the Air Force for an estimated $79 billion.
The Pentagon hopes the radar-evading bomber will be able to slip through the increasingly sophisticated air defenses that both Russia and China are building, restoring in the process America’s eroding ability to wage war anywhere on the planet whenever it wants to.
“Building this bomber is a strategic investment for the next 50 years,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on Tuesday evening. “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.”
Details of Northrop’s bomber design remain classified. Pentagon officials wouldn’t even specify what kind of engines the new plane will have.
As part of the contract, Northrop Grumman will build an initial 21 bombers, for frontline service beginning around 2025, military officials said. The military’s accountants estimate Northrop Grumman can build 100 bombers for $56 billion. The 10-year development process should cost no more than $23 billion in today’s dollars, William LaPlante, the Air Force’s top weapons buyer, said at the Tuesday contract announcement.
“The Air Force has made the right decision for our nation’s security,” Wes Bush, president of Northrop Grumman, said in a statement.
Northrop’s win comes as no surprise. The company has more recent bomber experience than Lockheed and Boeing, having built all 21 copies of the Air Force’s last bomber, the B-2. Northrop is also the only one of the three companies that, prior to Tuesday’s announcement, lacked a major Pentagon warplane contract.
Boeing is building aerial tankers for the Air Force and Super Hornet fighters for the Navy. Lockheed makes the F-35 stealth fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Industry analysts had speculated that losing the bomber contract could have forced Northrop Grumman to exit the warplane business entirely, leaving the United States with just two major military plane makers.
LaPlante denied that Northrop’s survival as a plane manufacturer factored into the bomber decision: “The industrial base was not at all a consideration.”
Lockheed and Boeing have 100 days to officially protest the contract award to the Government Accountability Office, which would compel the Pentagon to justify its decision.
The contract award marks the end of a nearly decade-long struggle for the military—and the beginning of a potential new one. The Air Force tried to kick-start a new bomber program way back in 2006 in order to begin replacing a mixed fleet of 50-year-old B-52s, 30-year-old B-1s, and B-2s dating to the 1990s, only to have then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancel the effort in 2010 for being too expensive.
The Defense Department took management of the bomber initiative away from the Air Force and relaunched it, assigning the secretive Rapid Capabilities Office to oversee the program. The Washington, D.C.-based office had previously shepherded design and deployment of the Air Force’s X-37B, a high-tech robotic space plane that can spend more than a year at a time in orbit.
The new bomber Northrop Grumman will build is an important component of the Pentagon’s strategy for deterring an increasingly well-armed and assertive Russia and China. The Air Force has expressed concern that its older warplanes can’t penetrate the latest Russian and Chinese defenses, which include long-range radars and powerful surface-to-air missiles.
“The capabilities of the Long Range Strike Bomber will ensure the United States can hold any target on the globe at risk,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. “This is an exciting day for us.”