One of America’s biggest weapons projects is accelerating … largely behind closed doors. Within a matter of weeks the U.S. Air Force could award a contract to begin producing the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B.
The price: hefty. It could cost $80 billion or more. The stakes: big. Not only does LRS-B have huge implications for the shape and strategy of American air power over the coming decades, but it could mean the difference between whether some U.S. warplane manufacturers stay in business.
There’s far more we don’t know about the LRS-B than we do. We know it’s supposed to be stealthy and — befitting the name — travel at very long distances. It’s supposed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. We don’t know what it looks like. It may even be optionally manned, meaning it could fly like a drone for missions too dangerous or demanding for humans.
And it’s all because the Air Force’s existing B-52 Stratofortress bombers are getting old. Those lumbering, 50-year-old workhorses are slow but highly reliable decades into service. But the B-52 is dead meat if scanned by the latest Chinese and Russian radars and fired upon by the world’s latest anti-aircraft missiles.
Oh, and the B-52 isn’t stealthy. LRS-B will be.
Then there’s politics. Lockheed Martin and Boeing — two giants of the American warplane industry — are teaming up in a consortium against rival Northrop Grumman. If the consortium wins the LRS-B contract, Northrop is in trouble. Over the coming decades, Lockheed will keep its production lines humming with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Boeing is working on the Air Force’s next refueling tanker.
Northtrop, which built the B-2 Spirit, the United States’ last stealth bomber, is at the moment building … not much. Unless it wins the LRS-B contract.