At Last — the U.S. Air Force Is Getting a New Bomber
Northrop Grumman will build the Long Range Strike Bomber
It’s official. After years of development, the U.S. Air Force has chosen Northrop Grumman over a Lockheed-Boeing consortium to build the service’s next long-range bomber.
On Oct. 27, the flying branch announced that it would pay the Virginia-based plane maker more than $21.4 billion to start engineering and manufacturing development – an early phase before large scale production – for the new Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B.
The Pentagon plans to buy a total of 100 of the heavy-hitting aircraft to replace the 76 aging B-52 Stratofortresses and some of the 62 faster-flying B-1 “Bones” now in service.
“The LRS-B will provide flexibility as a dual capable bomber carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons, as well as the strategic agility our nation needs to respond to emerging threats and an uncertain future,” Air Force chief Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters at the Pentagon.
Beyond the buzzwords, Air Force officials refused to reveal further details about the project’s requirements, its features or how many prototypes Northrop Grumman may have already built as part of the competition.
The flying branch expects to get 21 aircraft – currently valued at $564 million dollars each – in the first five lots and have them start entering service sometime around 2025.
The Pentagon did not offer a cost estimate for the complete program or how much taxpayers will have to shell out over the full service life of the bombers. However, the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation and the Air Force’s Cost Analysis Agency both conducted independent reviews.
While we don’t know what the number was, officials at the briefing said the flying branch’s review was two percent higher and used as the final estimate. The Pentagon has already spent nearly $2 billion on undefined “risk reduction activities” to help keep costs down.
“No service chief ever wants to be in a situation where they must caution a … commander or the secretary of defense or the president against addressing a threat to the United States either because we lack the appropriate capability or because we would incur unacceptable levels of risk in doing so,” Welsh added.
“This bomber will minimize the possibility that my successors are ever put in that position.”
Despite being so secretive, the competition has been a huge undertaking — even spilling over into the Super Bowl — involving America’s last three major warplane manufacturers. For the first time in more than 30 years, the Air Force will buy brand new bombers. Hundreds of skilled jobs will be tied to making the aircraft, the gear on board, new weapons and spare parts. Not to mention maintenance.
The project has likely saved Northrop Grumman, keeping its production lines open as Lockheed builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Boeing builds the KC-46 Pegasus refueling tanker. The Air Force denied that maintaining a healthy “industrial base” factored into the decision.
However, the flying branch was quick to note that it would be meeting with Lockheed and Boeing as early as Oct. 30. Those companies have 100 days to file a complaint with the Government Accountability Office.
It all started in 1999. That year, the Air Force announced plans to develop a new bomber to replace all of its B-52s and B-1s by 2037. Five years later, the flying branch decided to replace at least the B-52s earlier as part of a program known as the Next Generation Bomber.
Six years ago, the Next Generation Bomber project morphed into LRS-B. Because of the highly sensitive nature of the project, the Pentagon has been tight lipped about exactly what the new bombers will look like or what missions they will be expected to perform.
We can glean some clues.
As the competition heated up, Northrop Grumman and the Lockheed-Boeing team released concept art depicting tailless flying wing designs … like the B-2 Spirit. This is not entirely surprising. With more than a half-century of work on flying wing aircraft, Northrop Grumman can tap into lessons learned from the stealth bomber. Similarly, Lockheed was responsible for the top-secret bat-winged RQ-170 drone.
Further, we know that the LRS-B’s stealthy shape will be one of its most important features, as it must cut through the most modern air defenses produced by Russia and China. The new planes will likely be powered by more than one high-performance engine.
One option might be the Pratt & Whitney PW9000. Unveiled in 2010, engine-maker’s new motor combines features from the F-35 stealth fighter’s F-135 powerplant and the commercial PW1000G. General Electric and Rolls Royce might offer a version of their F-136 – the Pentagon’s backup engine for the F-35 – as a competitor.
Regardless of the engine, we can expect the Air Force to insist on a mid-air refueling capability. Aerial refueling is absolutely crucial to American strategic air power. Tankers such as the KC-135, KC-10 and much-delayed KC-46 give American fighter jets and bombers the ability to reach the far corners of the globe without needing make a pit stop at friendly bases.
The aircraft will no doubt be packed full of powerful radars and sensors to spot hazards and for lobbing smart bombs and missiles. Like the older bombers it is slated to replace, the LRS-B should be able to carry a mix of laser- and GPS-guided bombs, long-range air-launched cruise missiles and nuclear weapons.
Plus, 30,000-pound bunker-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrators will no doubt be in the mix. Based on publicly available estimates, these weapons can bust through and blast buried military facilities up to 200 feet underground. This combination of weapons and sensors means the new LRS-B will be a “long range sensor shooter,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula told CNN in March.
Like the F-35, the flying branch hopes the new bombers will be able to take information from friendly aircraft, drones and other sources and “fuze” it all together to form a more accurate picture of the battlefield below.
In short, the LRS-B is a bomber … and could be a spy plane, too. Compared to existing airliner-sized RC-135 spy planes, a stealthy and speedy LRS-B could more easily — and safely — snoop on foreign missile or nuclear sites.
The Air Force could also cook up entirely new roles for LRS-B. If it can sneak past enemy air defenses and spot aerial threats from hundreds of miles away, an LRS-B packed with high-speed anti-aircraft missiles might act as an alternative to short-range fighter jets, suggested one 2015 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“We’re designing the platform to be adaptable,” Welsh noted, declining to offer any specifics. “Open architecture … will make it easier to modify the platform as technology advances and the threats evolve.”
And there’s always the possibility the LRS-B won’t even need a crew. To meet its requirements, the Air Force could easily order “pilot-optional” drone bombers.
Building 100 bombers is ambitious, as budget cuts and cost overruns always risk trimming the final number. In an embarrassing incident in August, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James admitted that the flying branch had miscalculated the project’s costs in 2014.
“The mistake was a regrettable error, but it has been corrected, so it is not going to affect us internally,” James told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 24. However, lawmakers were outraged to find out that the earlier 10-year projection had been off by more than $25 billion.
If the Air Force decides to add missions to the LRS-B project – or can’t decide on how many missions the plane will have – we can expect costs to rise again. Thirty years ago, the Air Force cut short its planned B-2 fleet from more than 130 planes to 21 due to cost overruns. The Air Force will want to avoid a similar fate for the LRS-B.
For now, the final size and shape of the new planes remains a secret – maybe even to Northrop Grumman.