WASHINGTON — A day after the Pentagon revealed that Northrop Grumman will build the US Air Force’s next-generation Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), the aerospace industry is still struggling to grasp the full impact of the decision.
Tuesday’s award of the largest military aircraft contract in more than a decade brought to a close months of speculation about who might win the industry-shaping contest: Northrop, builder of the B-2 stealth bomber, or a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team.
But the Pentagon's announcement raised more questions than it answered.
The Air Force has not released crucial details about the plane itself. The LRS-B's size, weight and payload remain unknowns, as do the extent of its stealth capabilities. Top officials also declined to say what companies will build key components of the aircraft.
The Pentagon did not even disclose the value of the Oct. 27 award, leaving the aerospace community to guess at the dollar amount of the initial development contract.
The contract announced Tuesday is estimated to be worth about $80 billion in fiscal year 2016 dollars — about $23.5 billion for the development phase and $56.4 billion more to procure 100 aircraft.
The Air Force did release the total expected development cost for LRS-B, as well as an average procurement unit cost. Two independent government cost estimators projected that each bomber will cost roughly $511 million in 2010 dollars on average if 100 planes are built, the Air Force said — substantially less than the original $550 million target cost set by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. This translates to $564 million per plane in FY16 dollars.
Another unanswered question is which subcontractors will build the various parts and systems of the new plane. The Air Force has already finalized these decisions, officials revealed Tuesday. After the bomber requirement was announced in 2012, each of the bidders conducted a competition to determine all the components of the aircraft, officials said.
However, the final tally is classified for security reasons, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, said Tuesday.
“The competition for all components of the aircraft were already done as part of the proposal, so it’s a full-up aircraft is what we have received,” Bunch said.
Industry is especially keen to learn who will build the LRS-B’s power plant. The engine subcontractor is likely to be one of the three primary suppliers: Pratt & Whitney, maker of the F135 engine used to power the F-35 joint strike fighter, GE Aviation, or Rolls Royce.
Pratt & Whitney blasted out a short statement minutes after the contract award was announced. A spokesman said the company "congratulates Northrop Grumman for their selection on this very important program" but declined "to comment on any other questions regarding the Long Range Strike-Bomber program."
A spokesman from GE told Defense News in a Wednesday email that “The Long Range Strike-Bomber is an important program and we congratulate Northrop on their selection.” The spokesman deferred any other questions to the Air Force.
Among other components, LRS-B will need to have a robust on-board radar, electronic warfare systems, and significant communications capabilities.
Perhaps the most significant unanswered question is whether Boeing-Lockheed will protest the contract being awarded to Northrop.
Air Force leadership expressed confidence that the contract award is insulated from any bid protest. Secretary Deborah Lee James stressed in her Tuesday remarks the pains taken to ensure the source selection protest followed the law.
“Award of this contract followed a deliberate and disciplined process, our team of professionals carefully considered the offerers’ proposals in accordance with the source selection criteria,” James told reporters. “The entire process was carried out with a high level of transparency with our industry partners and was scrutinized via DOD peer reviews.”
The Air Force will debrief the losing team on the decision as early as Friday, Bunch said.
The Boeing-Lockheed team will wait for the debrief before deciding whether to protest the award, Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher told Defense News in a Wednesday email.
Despite the Air Force’s best efforts, analysts agree that Boeing-Lockheed will likely file a protest.
The chances that the losing team will protest the award are high, particularly given Boeing’s clout on Capitol Hill, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia told Defense News Wednesday.
The question is not whether Boeing-Lockheed will protest, but how long the protest period will be, according to Jerry Hendrix, senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. The Government Accountability Office will scrutinize whether the source selection process followed the guidelines laid out in the original solicitation.
The fact that the Air Force used not one but two independent cost estimators to look at the program is a further indication that the service has all its bases covered, Hendrix said.
“This will be a brief protest,” he said.
Loren Thompson, an analyst and defense industry consultant, also pointed to a recent DOD inspector general audit of the LRS-B acquisition process, which has not been released publicly, as evidence that the Air Force has successfully insulated the bomber contract.
“They have done everything imaginable to make this protest-proof,” Thompson said.