WASHINGTON — For months the defense industry has been held hostage, watching closely as the Pentagon weighs a decision that will shape the aerospace world for decades to come.
New information shared last week reveals what is behind the delay. The Air Force is using an unusual acquisition strategy, led by a shadowy office, to procure the bomber. Meanwhile, the competing designs are vastly more mature than previously known, to a level nearly unheard of in a pre-award program.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former deputy chief of staff for ISR, said he sees an LRS-B with an unrefueled range radius of 2,500 nautical miles. This provides "sufficient range capability to counter any of the anti-access capabilities that are emerging from the Russians or the Chinese," Deptula said.
As to size, the briefers were apparently cagey during the meeting. However, they indicated a UCLASS-size design was too small and the B-2 design was too large. Cost could also constrain the size of the aircraft, one source said.
No mention was made of speed during the briefing, although the combination of long range, large payload and cost constraints strongly suggest LRS-B will be subsonic.
The advanced testing, unusual this early in the acquisition process, is in part because the bomber program is being handled by the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), a small group inside Air Force acquisitions that handles secretive programs. As its name implies, the RCO follows a different acquisition path than the rest of the service, with more freedom in how it procures technologies.
The officials also revealed details about the procurement roadmap during the briefing, Gertler wrote. Initial acquisition will take place in five low-rate production lots totaling about 20 aircraft, and two to three test aircraft will precede the production lots.
But the credibility of the Air Force when it comes to cost has recently been called into question. The service has scrambled to do damage control after reports emerged last month of massive cost discrepancies in its 10-year cost estimates for the bomber. Members of Congress, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., have raised concerns over the errors; the Air Force says they should have no impact on the bottom line.
The Air Force has said it is targeting a production line of 80 to 100 planes to replace the B-52s and B-1s, which the service plans to retire in the mid-2040s. With proper maintenance and modernization the Air Force can operate these planes until 2044, but as the aircraft age it will be increasingly difficult and costly to ensure they can carry out their missions.
"The idea that we would run a Formula One or a NASCAR race with a car built in 1962 is ridiculous, but we're going to war with airplanes built in 1962," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said during an Aug. 24 press conference. "We have got to modernize the Air Force. It's just an imperative."
Boeing must win LRS-B to survive long enough to compete for the Sixth Generation Fighter program, some analysts said. Winning a contract to build the Air Force's new fleet of trainers could keep St. Louis afloat, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said, but as one of several competitors, Boeing can't bank on a positive outcome.
On the other hand, if Boeing wins, Northrop's investors may push to break up the company. Northrop has a stake in several major military aircraft acquisition programs, including the F-35 joint strike fighter, but is not prime on any.
"They would say, 'this thing is worth more than the sum of its parts,'" Aboulafia said. "Raytheon would love radars; Boeing would probably love that share of the joint strike fighter."
Another potential scenario if Northrop wins: Boeing tries to buy Northrop's aerospace unit. Once Northrop has completed the LRS-B design, divesting the business to another party might make sense to investors.
No matter who wins, the losing team is unlikely to be shut out of the business of designing and producing combat aircraft, said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, noting UCLASS, T-X and the Sixth Generation Fighter programs are in the pipeline.
None of the firms involved need an LRS-B victory to stay in business, and none have signaled they would want to rethink their business strategies based on the outcome, he said.
"I sincerely doubt that the DoD would approve a Lockheed Martin or Boeing buy of Northrop Grumman Aerospace," Callan said. "They're getting the benefits of competition in LRS-B, and I think they most certainly want to preserve the benefits of competition on some of these programs going forward."
Still, analysts are divided as to how much weight the service is giving to the health of the industrial base in its final decision.
Northrop could have the industrial base argument on its side: A Northrop win would spread the Air Force's top three priorities — Lockheed Martin's F-35, Boeing's tanker and the new bomber — among the three contractors. In contrast, a Lockheed-Boeing win would mean Lockheed essentially controls all Air Force combat aviation production.
But Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it's unlikely the Air Force will make the final cut based on industrial base concerns.
"I think that considering the health of the defense industrial base writ large is an important factor," Gunzinger said. "That said, I don't think they are going to make a decision on this capability based on the industrial base."
Northrop and Boeing-Lockheed have been tight-lipped about their offerings as well as contingency plans, with Boeing-Lockheed citing an Air Force wish to keep the program under wraps.
"Boeing and Lockheed Martin have produced and supported essential US airpower capabilities since the earliest days of military aviation," a spokesperson said. "We believe that all adds up to the expertise in design, production and support that would make LRS-B successful, from day one to the end of its service life many decades from now."
A Northrop representative was more succinct: "As the only company to ever design, build, field and sustain a stealth bomber, Northrop Grumman is well positioned on this program."
Going forward, the Air Force will have to do a better marketing job for the program, explaining why LRS-B is worth the cost and resources, Callan said.
"Inevitably, it's going to be a lightning rod, and it's going to compete for dollars against other Air Force and DoD program priorities," Callan said. "I'm not sure if the Air Force has fully sold this, DoD fully sold this to Congress, and taxpayers at large."