Somewhere in the Big Hangar in the Sky, Jack Northrop must be smiling.
The aviation pioneer, aircraft designer and visionary is probably pleased as punch, since the company he founded–now a part of Northrop-Grumman–has won the contract to build the next-generation long-range strike/bomber (LRS-B) for the U.S. Air Force. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made the announcement this afternoon, revealing that Northrop-Grumman won the $21.4 billion contract over a rival team, which paired Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.
“Concern about that emerging challenge explains why the Obama Administration declared in 2012 that the main focus of U.S. military planning was shifting to the Asia-Pacific region. It is no coincidence that President Obama in the same timeframe enunciated the need for a new long-range bomber. Discussion of specific weapon programs seldom rises to the presidential level, so the fact that the president singled out the bomber as a pressing military need is portentous. The simple truth is that if the United States does not revitalize its dwindling fleet of heavy bombers, it probably cannot prevail in a war against China.
The main vehicle for bringing about that revitalization is the LRS-B. Despite frequent public discussion of the program, though, much of official Washington does not understand that America’s future as a world power may hinge on its success. So here is a concise explanation of why America can’t beat back the next great challenge to its global influence without a new bomber.
…any U.S. war plan for defeating China would have to consist mainly of the skillful application of air power and sea power. The basic goal would be to threaten the Chinese Communist Party with the loss of its political power, military might and economic strength by holding several thousand high-value targets at risk. Nuclear weapons probably can’t be used without provoking retaliation in kind, so aside from the moral objections there are practical reasons why the campaign would need to rely on large numbers of precision-guided conventional munitions launched by aircraft and warships (U.S. war plans would need to include mechanisms for discouraging any Chinese use of nuclear weapons).”
Of course, it will be almost a decade before the first LRS-B enters operational service and a lot can happen between now and 2025, including annual installments of the budget wars between Congress and succeeding administrations. With the pressure to make more cuts in a defense budget that is already hollow, the new bomber program will make a tempting target. Lest we forget, the Air Force originally envisioned a B-2 fleet of more than 100 airframes, but the end of the Cold War (and pressures to cut Pentagon spending) reduced the production run to only 21 aircraft, all based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. The contract awarded today covers only engineering and development costs for LRS-B; DoD and the Air Force will have to go back to Congress and the White House in a few years and convince our political leaders to fund actual production.
In the interim, there will be plenty of speculation over why Northrop-Grumman got the nod over its competitors. Obviously, the company has experience with stealth designs and production, dating back to the B-2. But so does Lockheed-Martin, which developed the Air Force’s original very low observable prototype (Have Blue) and its operational offspring, the F-117. Since then, Lockheed has developed and produced the F-22 Raptor and has begun limited production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), another stealth design.
The Nighthawk was a game-changer in aerial warfare and the Raptor (as a multi-role fighter) has even more impressive capabilities. In missions over Syria, F-22s often perform multiple tasks on the same mission, including escorting strike aircraft; employing their own ordnance against ground targets, providing electronic warfare support for allied formations and collecting intelligence data from the battlefield. When the F-35 enters operational service, it will perform many of the same duties and will be fully “networked” with the Raptor and other platforms. With all that expertise, why did Lockheed-Martin (and partner Boeing) come up short?
One explanation may lie in rising costs and delayed deliveries of the JSF. Now billions over its original budget, the F-35 won’t be available in significant numbers until the end of this decade, and at a much-higher-than-originally-projected price tag. With so much riding on LRS-B, the Pentagon’s procurement managers may have determined they can’t afford a repeat of the JSF’s development woes in the new program.
There’s also a desire to “share the wealth,” to help maintain the industrial base and intellectual talent required to produce state-of-the-art defense systems. With the exception of the Navy’s X-47B UAV and the RQ-4 Global Hawk, Northrop-Grumman has been largely absent as a producer of military aircraft over the past two decades, concentrating instead on its growing (and profitable) electronics, technical services and IT businesses. However, the company continues to maintain and update older, legacy systems such as the B-2 and the Navy’s E-2D Hawkeye radar plane. Northrop-Grumman has been trying to re-establish itself as a military aircraft manufacturer, and securing the LRS-B contract will help cement that “comeback.”
Ironically, the company’s diversification efforts may have buttressed its case to build the new bomber. Like the F-22, the LRS-B will truly be a “system of systems,” designed to preform multiple roles during a single mission. Northrop-Grumman’s expertise in such disciplines as electronic warfare, cyber-security, radar technology and systems integration represent the skills that will be needed to field the new bomber. Maybe that was the edge that tilted the contract in favor of Northrop-Grumman, although that claim can be disputed, since Lockheed-Martin has considerable experience in those fields as well.