WASHINGTON — The two designs competing to be the US Air Force's next generation bomber have undergone extensive testing by the service and are far more mature than previously known, to a level nearly unheard of in the Pentagon before a contract award, Defense News has learned.
The designs also feature significantly improved stealth capabilities when compared to the B-2 and still feature plans for future certification of nuclear weaponry and the ability to be optionally manned.
Considered one of the US Air Force's three top acquisition priorities, the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program has been kept primarily in the dark as the service weighs two competing proposals, one from Northrop Grumman, and the other from a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. A contract award is expected soon, with indications it could come before the end of September.
On Tuesday, the Air Force held a meeting with outside stakeholders laying out new details on the secretive bomber. According to two individuals with knowledge of the meeting, the service has conducted far greater testing of the bomber designs than is normal for a pre-award program.
One source said the Air Force officials who briefed made it clear that both designs are "very mature," having undergone wind tunnel testing and extensive survivability tests to evaluate the design from all angles. However, neither design has actually flown, both sources said.
Final requirements on the program were locked down in May 2013, the source said. Since then, the two design teams have been developing and testing their systems, while the service has been focused on doing extensive risk reduction.
A second source cited the Air Force briefers as saying that those designs are very different from each other, with widely different teams on subsystems such as the engines, electronic warfare suites and comms systems. Most of those subcontractors will not be announced when the winner is picked, the second source understands.
"[There is] much greater fidelity than we've ever seen before for a pre-EMD program," the first source said. "It's really different. They've spent a couple years doing these tests."
The source quoted an official as saying risk reduction has been done "down to the access panels."
"The risk reduction is done. The designs are technically mature. And we're ready to move," that same official reportedly said, adding that the bomber program has the "highest level of maturity I've seen in an aircraft build."
The 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 which handles secretive programs such as the service's X-37B space plane.
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 decision to let them take lead on the program was made back in 2011 under then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, following a review of what went wrong with a previously aborted bomber program.
The RCO's involvement also adds an interesting twist to the long-standing Air Force claim that the bomber will draw from existing technologies. Some observers believed the Air Force might use off-the-shelf commercial tech to help keep the price down, but the RCO has access to existing technologies that most people may never have heard of.
"We're about three years more downstream from where EMD contracts normally are," the first source said. "They've decided to award at a much higher level of maturity and design where they've done a lot of thinking about how to transition to EMD ... and that might be a legacy of the RCO approach."
The briefers avoided giving details about when or how they might select the winning company, but did offer some general insights into the future of the program:
- When the contract is awarded, it will come in two parts — an EMD contract that is cost-plus incentive free, and an agreement on the first five low-rate initial production lots that is fixed-price incentive free. Those first five lots will cover the production of 21 bombers.
- Shortly after the contract is awarded, the service will share details on the development costs for the program. Operations and sustainment cost estimates, however, won't come until Milestone C, down the road.
- The bomber design will have a robust electronic attack element on board
- Although the bomber will not be nuclear-certified from the get-go, it will have nuclear-strike software and hardware produced on the very first aircraft. The certification process requires having five identical production models with the same configuration and software, so do not expect nuclear certification to come until the service has enough models produced so it can do the nuclear certification without halting other test requirements.
- The plan is still for the bomber to be optionally manned. However, first flights will be manned, and it is unclear if the ability to do unmanned operations will be built into the early production models or added later. The first source indicated that capability is not a "short term priority."
- The service remains focused on using an open-architecture approach which will allow future additions to be made with less costs.
Both sources said the Air Force officials are claiming a significant improvement in low observability from the B-2, with multiple references made to improved materials that were not available when the Spirit fleet was designed.
As to size, the briefers were apparently cagey. However, they did apparently indicate that a UCLASS-size design was too small and the B-2 design was too large.
"The words and body language were that it's not as big as the B-2," the first source said. "But so much is driven by engine technology."
The second source agreed but said that a smaller plane doesn't necessitate a smaller range if the service is willing to trade payload for range. Notably, the service briefers apparently downplayed payload gross weight and instead emphasized the ability to carry multiple types of munitions — selectability between large and small weapons.
A third source, who was not in the meeting but has knowledge of program discussion, believes a design could feature "about 20 percent less payload and 20 percent less range" than the B-2. That source also believes that whichever team wins will produce a flying-wing design, perhaps similar to the UCLASS designs put forth from Boeing and Northrop.
Overall, the sources agreed, the meeting gave attendees a sense that the US Air Force has a much better handle on the bomber program than had been expected. This is important given that members of Congress are already lining up to demand greater oversight on the program.
"They were determined to show competence, and they succeeded, in my mind," the second source said. "This is a well-run program. They were very mindful of the cost issues and were determined to get in front of that."
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.