Congressional Researcher Thinks the Air Force Already Has a Secret Stealth Bomber
Spending pattern casts doubt on official warplane development timeline
On July 9, the U.S. Air Force formally launched the competition to build America’s next stealth bomber. But a July 2 report from the Congressional Research Service questions the flying branch’s official narrative.
According to CRS’ Jeremiah Gertler, it appears the Air Force already has new bomber prototypes in the air—and the competition could be a sham.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Gertler’s skepticism comes just four months after civilians glimpsed what appeared to be previously unknown stealth warplanes flying over Texas.
Technically, the Air Force’s July 9 Request for Proposals is an invitation for two teams—Northrop Grumman and a pairing of Boeing and Lockheed Martin—to submit design ideas for the new Long Range Strike Bomber.
The Air Force wants up to 100 new LRS-Bs starting in the 2020s, in order to begin replacing existing 1960s-vintage B-52s as well as B-1s from the ’80s … and to complement stealthy ’90s-era B-2s. The LRS-B, which the Air Force presumably will designate B-3, must be able to avoid radar detection while flying long distances to deliver precision-guided munitions.
It may also eventually be “optionally-manned,” meaning that it could fly sorties with no pilots aboard, like a drone does.
But CRS’s Gertler wonders if the proposal-request is partially a fiction—and, in fact, the Air Force has already developed bomber prototypes alongside one or both industry teams.
The legislative researcher bases his assessment on the LRS-B’s official budget, which jumped from $260 million in 2013 to a projected $3.4 billion in 2019. “Aviation analysts and industry officials confirm CRS’ assessment that this funding stream resembles a production program more than a typical development profile,” Gertler notes.
“This may indicate that significant LRS-B development has already been completed, presumably in classified budgets,” Gertler adds. The Air Force’s classified “black” budget exceeds $50 billion annually.
The official timeline for developing the bomber also seems suspicious to CRS’ analyst. “Prior development would also help explain how the Air Force intends to get the system from a Request for Proposals to initial operational capability in about 10 years, when equally or less-complicated systems like the F-22 and F-35 have taken more than 20.”
Sure enough, in 2012 Aviation Week reporter Bill Sweetman believed he had discovered evidence of a secret Northrop Grumman bomber prototype. As far back as 2008, the Air Force gave Northrop $2 billion for a “restricted” program that Sweetman contended was the test warplane. At the same time, Northrop hired as a consultant John Cashen, one of the men responsible for the B-2’s radar-evading design.
In December 2013, Sweetman and fellow AvWeek reporter Amy Butler revealed the Air Force’s secret new RQ-180 stealth spy drone, also a Northrop product. At that time, Sweetman surmised the 2008 funding in fact went toward the RQ-180’s development, rather than toward the design of the LRS-B.
But then three months later on March 10, veteran plane-spotters Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett snapped photos of at least one, and possibly three, examples of a new aircraft and their contrails near Amarillo, Texas. Douglass and Muskett’s secret planes appeared to possess the “cranked-kite” wing shape that’s currently in vogue with Northrop’s designers.
Sweetman, for his part, didn’t think the secret planes were RQ-180s, because the RQ-180 is unmanned. Douglass overheard radio traffic between pilots in a three-ship flight—using the call sign “Sienna”—that seems to have been the mystery jets.
To be sure the men hadn’t seen and mistaken B-2s on a training flight, Sweetman asked the Air Force whether any of the older stealth bombers were over Amarillo on March 10. The Air Force said no, none were—although the flying branch later retracted that confirmation.
So it’s possible that the Air Force already has paid billions for at least one company to build and fly new stealth bomber prototypes—years ahead of the official development timeline. If so, the current competition could be a farce.
“If there has in fact been considerable prior development, the Air Force will be challenged to construct a truly competitive RFP,” Gertler notes. “Whichever competitor may have done the bulk of any such preliminary LRS-B development is likely to have an advantage in the production contract.”
If CRS is right and Northrop is already flying prototypes, then we may know—years in advance—what America’s new front-line stealth warplane will look like.