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.
Winning that competition would be a huge boost for Northrop, and the company has not been subtle about its business case.
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?"
"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.
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.
While those short term contests offer opportunities for the company, Vice also has his eyes set on a competition much further down the road.
"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.
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."
"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.