The Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program is stealthy, literally and figuratively. Few details are actually known about the bomber's capabilities or design. But the program's impact is already being widely felt throughout the Pentagon and its industry partners.
And while the program appears to be on track, Congress is waiting in the wings for any sign of cost overrun or technological problems.
"This is crunch time," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. "It's the biggest single outstanding DoD competition by a very wide margin. That makes it important in and of itself."
The program is targeting a production line of 80-100 planes. It will replace the fleet of B-52 and B-1 bombers. It will be stealthy, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and optional manning has been discussed. A down-selection will be made this spring or early summer, with initial operating capability planned for the mid-2020s. Nuclear certification will follow two years after that.
The target price, set by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is $550 million a copy. To keep the price down, the Air Force is looking to use mature technologies that are available now, rather than launching new developments. At the same time, the program will have an open architecture approach for future technologies.
Unless there is a secret competitor still unknown — highly unlikely, but like many things with the program, impossible to rule out — there are two teams are bidding for the contract. One is Northrop Grumman, which developed the B-2 stealth bomber. The other is a team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Together, those companies represent three of the top five defense firms in the nation.
Breaking down the rest of the program is a master class in the classic "known unknowns" phrase coined by Donald Rumsfeld. What equipment will it carry? Will it be in a flying wing shape? What is more important, stealth or speed? Will the planes, like the B-2, be so classified that they cannot be stationed abroad? If so, does that affect the range vs. payload tradeoff?
A source with knowledge of the program said the Air Force is likely looking at something smaller than a B-2, perhaps as small as half the size, with two engines similar in size to the F135 engines that power the F-35, so enhancement programs can also be applied to the bomber.
"They should go bigger [in terms of airframe], but Gates threw that $500 million figure out there without thinking through the overall effect and requirement," the source said.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former deputy chief of staff for ISR, agreed that the focus on the $550 million figure may end up hurting the bomber's capabilities by driving the discussion from what the plane does to what can keep the price down.
"One of the biggest concerns is that this is going to turn into a cost shootout, and whomever can produce a 'technically acceptable' airplane at the lowest cost will be the winner, without any judgment or look at the ability for growth, the ability to connect to new technologies," he said. "That is a big concern amongst folks out there who are involved in this evolution."
And then there are the theories that the bomber is further along in its development cycle than it appears. Last year, J.J. Gertler, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service penned a memo noting that the bomber's budget profile looks more like a production than a research and development program, hinting that much of the technological development and testing has already occurred behind the scenes.
One analyst noted that some of that work could be based on technologies developed for the previous bomber recapitalization, which was canceled in 2009.
Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force official and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argued that the mystery around the jet isn't a bad thing.
"We don't know performance specifics in terms of range, payload, low observability, what weapons, what missions, radar capabilities — all these specific performance details," he said. "Nor should we. Those should not be announced publicly. It is a black program and those kind of details now would do nothing but give our potential enemies more time to develop countermeasures."
One of the larger unknowns is how much weight the Air Force — or higher ups at the Pentagon — is putting on industrial base impact. The answer to that question could seriously affect on which of the Boeing/Lockheed or Northrop teams win.
Deptula said industrial base considerations "absolutely" need to be part of the calculus.
"It has been a factor in other segments of our defense architecture, and one could make the case that in the aerospace industry, it is perhaps even more important than in the shipbuilding industry," he said.
Asked about that topic on Jan. 14, William LaPlante, the civilian acquisition head for the service, indicated that while industrial base concerns are something the Pentagon is aware of in a broad sense, that is not specifically one of the criteria for the bomber program.
"There is a bigger picture of just making sure we understand when will [different programs] have a downselect, what will come out of that — it's almost like a game theory thing to understand the implications," LaPlante said. "It's at the strategic level. Occasionally you might put it into a single competition. I don't think that's the case on the LRS-B."
The stakes are high for all three companies, Aboulafia said. After this contract, the next attack airplane will be a new fighter in the 2030s, and then a follow-on bomber sometime after that.
If Northrop loses, the chances of it still having the infrastructure to compete for a jet 15 years from now, or on a bomber longer out, seem slim. Losing the contract now would essentially end that part of their business.
Boeing, too, is coming to the end of its time as an attack aircraft manufacturer, despite the company's best efforts to keep the F/A-18 Super Hornet line humming. While the KC-46A tanker remains a Boeing program, it, and many other products from the company, are commercial derivatives rather than a brand new design.
Awarding Northrop the bomber would spread out the US Air Force's three top recapitalization priorities among three companies. On the flip side, giving the contract to the Lockheed/Boeing team would mean that Lockheed Martin, the producer of the F-35, essentially has full control over Air Force combat aviation production.
Analysts are divided as to who would be favored if the industrial base is a high priority. On the one hand, an industrial base angle should benefit Northrop, as it would spread the major programs among competitors.
"If you want Northrop to stay in the game as a prime, and you don't want to see the entire combat air forces at Lockheed, you have to go with Northrop," noted the first source familiar with the program.
Aboulafia, however, questions whether there is truly enough work available to spread among the three firms.
"That presupposes the Pentagon has this illusion that there can be three military airframers, and that's living in a fantasy land," he said, adding that strengthening the two military primes in Boeing and Lockheed would be "appealing" to DoD.
Aboulafia also points out that the contract could have major implications for one long rumored transaction among aerospace analysts — the potential sale of Northrop's aerospace group to Boeing.
"If Northrop loses, it could tip things to being bought by Boeing because it would not have a new airframe to build," Aboulafia said. "If Northrop wins, it could make them a more attractive target, and do the same."
Once the primes are settled, the subcontractor battle is likely to be just as fierce, Aboulafia noted.
Spokespeople for both teams expressed confidence that they were offering the better option to the Air Force.
Another thing to keep an eye on is the fight over the engine. If F135-maker Pratt & Whitney wins that competition, it would give it a stranglehold on the US military engine market. Whether the Pentagon be OK with that, or look to award a contract to General Electric instead, is another known unknown.
Right now, the program is humming along, with strong support from inside the Pentagon.
Last week, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel threw his weight behind the new bomber in a speech at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
"I think the Long-Range Strike Bomber is absolutely essential for keeping our deterrent edge," Hagel said. "We need to do it. We need to make the investments. We'll have it in the budget. It's something I have particularly put a priority on."
That commitment was echoed by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at a Jan. 14 speech.
"When we roll out the FY16 budget, the budget line will be similar to what you saw in '15 projected into '16," James said. "We're on track for our competition, it remains a top priority and it is truly the future of our bomber force."
But some foresee challenges ahead as the bomber moves from a black, hypothetical program to one actually bending metal — and one that can become a high profile target for government spending watchdogs and the nonproliferation community.
"As the F-35 gets spun up, LRS-B will become a new target, especially with the arms control people," said the source with knowledge of the program. "This a big airplane, and it will cost a lot."
Several experts agreed that the larger threat to the program comes from internal budgetary pressures, as the bomber will be competing not just with other service priorities, but with programs like the Navy's Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement, something Rebecca Grant of IRIS Independent Research says the Navy is positioning as a "national asset" on Capitol Hill.
"The black program status makes it harder in my opinion to build support for the bomber," Grant said. "With new [Senate Armed Services Committee] leadership, the program will come under additional scrutiny as the first big budget wedges appear this year and beyond. So the USAF had best have its act together on why the bomber they pick is the right bomber now, in the hands of the right manufacturer."
Congress could also interfere with the program in another way. The loser could protest the award, which could set up not only a battle at the Government Accountability Office, but a public relations fight. High profile contract protests often result in each company tapping its preferred congressmen to lobby on its behalf.
According to public data analyzed by the non-profit OpenSecrets.org, Lockheed ($4 million), Northrop ($3.9 million) and Boeing ($3.1 million) were the top three contributors to congressional campaigns and affiliated political action committees from the defense sector in 2013-2014. All three companies also rank in the top 25 of US companies in terms of dollars spent on lobbying.
Drawing a direct line from dollars spent on campaigns and lobbying and results for certain programs is always a bit risky, especially given the breadth of each company's portfolio. After all, Boeing and Lockheed traditionally work against each other, while both companies work with Northrop on different programs.
But those figures illustrate how strong the ties are between industry and members of Congress, even before the key issue of industrial base in various districts comes into play. After all, representatives will always rally around whichever side will bring jobs to their constituents.
While Boeing and Lockheed each have their own local supporters, Northrop may be able to call on the California and Florida delegations following its decision to expand facilities at Melbourne International Airport, on Florida's Space Coast.
While a company official did not confirm that Northrop plans to work on a potential LRS-B in Florida, Sen Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told media in May that the company plans on using the facility for that purpose.
Andrew Tilghman, traveling with Hagel, contributed to this report.