The U.S. Air Force Made the Right Choice for Its Next Stealth Bomber
Face it, Northrop Grumman has the better record
The team of Boeing and its junior partner Lockheed Martin recently protested the U.S. Air Force’s award to Northrop Grumman for America’s next-generation stealth bomber. This new aircraft, known as the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, will likely be a shorter-ranged stealth bomber than Northrop’s long-range B-2 Spirit.
This new bomber program is classified, so the basis for the protest is unknown to the public. However, an article at Forbes by Lockheed consultant Loren Thompson appears to reflect Boeing’s justification for the protest.
The essence of Thompson’s argument revolves around cost control and risk. But since the public cannot read the protest, the best insights possible are to study how the two prime contractors have performed historically.
Northrop Grumman built the B-2 long-range stealth bomber, which to be sure, significantly exceeded its projected unit price for the bomber. However, as the Spirit was the first manned stealth bomber, the company was building in an arcane area — one so esoteric that the Navy did not want to begin the A-12 stealth bomber program until Northrop had finished so to have the benefits of lessons learned.
Estimating costs, as well as controlling them in this advanced research domain, was exacerbated since the projected costs were based on building the original number of 132 B-2s, not the reduced number of 20 plus one converted prototype. Northrop, having learned its lesson, was unwilling to be seduced into bidding for the Navy’s fixed-price A-12 stealth bomber contract.
In spite of the temptation for more business, Northrop would not reduce its bid to the Navy’s maximum number because as Northrop CEO Tom Jones would later say, “we had learned what it cost to build stealth, the Navy had not.”
Meanwhile, Boeing has built hundreds of C-135 Stratolifters, with and without internal refueling tanks, and more than 1,000 767 passenger airliners. In spite of its background, Boeing is failing to contain costs with its proposed solution for the Next Generation Tanker, a version of its 767 airliner. Fortunately, the cost overrun of $1.2 billion will not affect the taxpayer, at least not yet, because the contract is “fixed price.”
However, the Long Range Strike Bomber contract is not. So Boeing’s inability to control cost on an airplane it has built more than 1,000 times, lined with tanks it has installed over decades into Boeing airplanes, is no guarantee the taxpayer will not pay for Boeing’s inability to control costs on a stealth bomber, a far more problematic production challenge than airliners and tankers.
The purpose of stealth in an airplane is to reduce its susceptibility to getting shot down by a missile. One measure of how effective Northrop and Lockheed have been with stealth is how well their designs survived in the same war zone.
Both the Northrop Grumman B-2 and Lockheed Martin F-117 were revealed in 1988, flew in the air war over Kosovo, and had the similar task of bombing targets — but with different results. Two of the Lockheed F-117s were hit by ancient Russian surface-to air-missiles, the SA-3, first fielded in 1961 and used extensively in the Vietnam air war.
One F-117 was shot down and the other limped home to become irrelevant for the rest of the war, generating an F-117 loss rate greater than the F-16’s, an airplane without stealth. Northrop Grumman’s B-2, on the other hand, flew with immunity from the surface-to-air threat.
Northrop — with its McDonnell Douglas partner — also competed against the team of Lockheed Martin-Boeing-General Dynamics in the Advanced Tactical Fighter program, which eventually resulted in the F-22 Raptor. The ATF program was the first example in which contractors would apply two less frequently applied technologies into a “fighter” airplane, stealth and supercruise, which is the ability to fly faster than the speed of sound without the usual high rate of fuel consumption.
The designs these two teams submitted to meet or exceed the Air Force requirements for the ATF design showed their relative capabilities. Even though the Lockheed YF-22 team was eventually awarded the contract, not well known is that the Northrop YF-23 was superior in virtually every important criteria for a fighter.
It cruised faster supersonically, was stealthier, had better thrust-to-weight for greater acceleration and had lower wing loading to make it more maneuverable — in spite of Lockheed’s attempt to compensate with variable engine nozzles.
Even better, the Northrop YF-23 had better rearward cockpit visibility — crucially important in air-to-air combat because most kills are from the rear. Contrary to the common comment that the Northrop YF-23 lost the competition because the YF-22 was more maneuverable, it lost because the Air Force was convinced Northrop did not have the manpower to build both the B-2 and the YF-23 simultaneously.
Just as Lockheed failed to incorporate the best possible rearward cockpit visibility in its YF-22 design, the company virtually eliminated it for the F-35. Not only was the shape of the cockpit canopy designed more for speed than seeing the enemy from the rear, Lockheed incorporated a $400,000 helmet that prevents the pilot from being able to turn his head around to look behind the airplane, blinding the pilot to the historically most vulnerable kill position.
Now back to Boeing. In the area for which Boeing is most known, building airliners, it demonstrated questionable judgment when it developed the new 787.
For example, in April 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board warned airlines that lithium batteries presented a serious fire hazard to air transportation, and required immediate attention. In spite of the warning, Boeing doubled down and incorporated a lithium battery as its primary power source, a battery known to cause in-flight fires.
Boeing lithium batteries experienced thermal runaway events after 52,000 flight hours, fewer than the 10 million flight hours Boeing predicted. Within 16 months after the 787’s commercial introduction, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the entire 787 fleet for three months, the first such action since 1979, in part because the 787’s electrical power would spontaneously shut down.
Several lithium battery fires occurred, some with passengers on board and some without.
The point of this discussion is not to claim that Northrop Grumman is perfect, nor that Boeing and Lockheed are imperfect. But when one looks at its competitors, Northrop Grumman appears the better choice to build the LRS-B, a conclusion with which the U.S. Air Force appears to agree.