LOS ANGELES — As Northrop Grumman begins 2015, its aerospace division is preparing for a series of major airframe competitions while keeping one eye on requirements for a future fighter program.
Tom Vice, Northrop's president for aerospace, outlined a number of competitions that the company will be involved with in the near and long-term, with the most surprising being a plan to compete for the Navy and Air Force's next-generation fighter.
Vice's comments were made as part of a company-organized trip to Northrop's southern California facilities last week. Defense News accepted travel and hotel accommodations from the company.
The nearest-term competition for the company is the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program from the Air Force. Northrop is competing against with a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the contract right to produce 80-100 of the penetrating bombers, at an estimated $550 million apiece.
Winning that competition would be a huge boost for Northrop, and the company has not been subtle about its business case.
During the trip, reporters were constantly reminded that Northrop has 35 years of experience with the B-2 Spirit bomber fleet, both in designing it and handling maintenance. In fact, reporters were given rare access to the sustainment facilities in Palmdale, where two of the bombers were undergoing major maintenance overhauls.
The experience of handling the sensitive B-2, in Northrop's mind, means it is best qualified for the new bomber. Or, as Vice put it, "If you haven't had 35 years of experience with the B-2, what is it you don't know?"
Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, said it's no surprise that is Northrop's message is no surprise, but expressed skepticism that the company still maintains that level of experience this far out from the birth of the Spirit bomber.
"I think it's a pretty thin bridge to walk to say they built the B-2, and that means they're the leader in bombers," Callan said. "That was a generation ago. They sustain it, that's great. But that was 20, 30 years ago."
"I just wonder if, at the end of the day, they have the infrastructure in place to manage as complex a program as LRS-B may turn out to be," he added.
The experience argument may be stronger on the future competition to recapitalize the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet, which Northrop produced. However, compared to the bomber, the JSTARS program is relatively small and much more focused on integration than production.
More complex could be the Air Force's T-X trainer replacement program. Northrop is teamed with BAE Systems, L-3 and Rolls-Royce on an offering of the Hawk Advanced Jet Training System, based on the BAE Hawk design used by the UK, Canada and Australia.
While requirements are not yet set on that program, it is expected to replace the T-38 fleet with 350 of the new aircraft. That would be a major coup for the company, as the jets would undoubtedly be built inside the US at a Northrop facility.
In fact, the company may have a potential location in mind for both LRS-B and T-X production. Although Vice would not come out and say it, reporters were taken to see the F-35 center fuselage production line at the company's Palmdale, Calif., government-owned, contractor-operated facility known as Air Force Plant 42.
The production line, part of Northrop's campus at the location, is massive, with around 450,000 square feet of space for the F-35 and another 1 million square feet currently unused.
"This site has very unique capabilities and capacities," Vice said. And while he declined to talk about "any future plans for any new Air Force programs," he did note that the B-2 had once been built at the location, a few hundred yards away from the facilities that handle B-2 sustainment.
Another potential competition is the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program, for which Northrop built and tested the X-47B unmanned system. However, that program is in flux, with the service uncertain it will proceed with the current requirements.
While those short term contests offer opportunities for the company, Vice also has his eyes set on a competition much further down the road.
He revealed that Northrop has a pair of teams dedicated to developing a "sixth-generation" fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, years before the services intend to issue requests for information on potential replacements for current aircraft.
"Northrop Grumman will compete for the next generation fighter," Vice flatly declared, noting that there is a program manager already leading a team of Northrop staffers on the program.
When asked whether he envisioned Northrop acting as a prime contractor on a future fighter, he added "of course."
Vice indicated that Northrop is looking at a supersonic, tailless airplane design as a potential solution, something he noted no one has ever done before.
The idea of Northrop getting involved in a sixth-gen fighter is intriguing to Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. He said that while the company has not had much recent success with fighter competitions, the designs it came up with were usually interesting. very intriguing. That includes the YF-23, which lost to Lockheed's F-22 design, and the YF-17, which lost to the F-16 but eventually became the basis for the F-18.
At the same time, investing heavily in a fighter before there is a requirement carries some risk. He pointed to Northrop's F-20, which was developed with independent research and development, was generally considered a very good plane, but never found a customer.
"It went horribly wrong, and there goes a billion dollars," he said. "So you have to be careful."
As for the idea of a tailless fighter design, Aboulafia said that is "definitely realistic" given advanced flight control systems and materials available today.
One area of growth for the company is the international sector, where the company has launched a reorganization involving the installation of chief executives for countries key to its business strategy.
"It's not been something that you probably thought about with Northrop Grumman, looking at global expansion, but it is a big part of our global focus," Vice said, highlighting recent wins for the Global Hawk in South Korea and Japan, as well as Japan's decision to procure the E-2D Hawkeye. "We have a major push internationally."
Incidentally, named country executives for both Japan and South Korea were made had country executives named in December of last year.
But while the international market could be a nice growth area for the company, Callan said that Northrop's real future potential depends on the US Air Force programs that are coming.
"Obviously, the golden goose is going to be the LRS-B, T-X and the 6th gen fighter," he said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.