New Bomber Will Be Boon for U.S. Aerospace Industry

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, December 2015 | Go to article overview

New Bomber Will Be Boon for U.S. Aerospace Industry


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


After the Air Force announced that it was awarding the long-range strike bomber contract to Northrop Grumman pundits and critics began chiming in.

The program would hit a fiscal bow wave in the 2020s and the service may not be able to purchase the 100 bombers required, they said. The estimated price per aircraft was artificially low. The mid-2020 deadline might not be met. And then, the runners-up to the competition, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office stating that the award wasn't fair.

Despite the cloud of pessimism surrounding the program's prospects, the contract award - worth an estimated $80 billion in 2010 dollars - will be a shot in the arm for the U.S. aerospace industry, many of the same analysts said.

"There really is quite a lot of good happening here," said Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial group and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Of course, every program looks wonderful when the contract is first awarded," he added. "The story always gets more complicated as it goes through the development process. Transitioning into production is always challenging and there are always struggles, but most come through on the other end and start looking like model programs. The C-17 is an example of that."

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, said: "This really does advance the aeronautical art." The LRSB B a so-called "clean-sheet" design. It isn't a derivative of previous aircraft, which is the case in current fixed- and rotary-wing military aircraft programs, he said. "It serves as a stimulant to U.S. national military capabilities [and] industrial and technological capabilities. The development of a reconnaissancestrike complex requires the development of quite a lot of new things."

Hunter added: "I think there are going to be bumps in the road - 100 percent - but ultimately I think this program is postured for success pretty effectively."

Just how big of a boon to industry the program will be isn't fully known because of the classified nature of the program. Northrop Grumman is not revealing the names of its partners.

Hunter said the award would have had different impacts on the industrial base depending on the winner.

"The point was made by many that Boeing and Lockheed would have an advantage because they are so much bigger," he said in an interview. But Northrop Grumman has the capacity to do much of the subsystem work in house, he said.

"Northrop didn't need a lot of teammates. They have a lot of capacity to do this thing in house, way more so than Boeing or Lockheed did," he said.

One exception is the engines. The beneficiary of that subcontract hasn't been revealed but there is a short list of well-known candidates, he noted. Electronic warfare is another system Northop may have to farm out, he added.

"It's an interesting commentary on the state of the industry that Northrop can deliver a sort of full up, end-to-end solution - a bomber with a radar and electronic systems and apertures," Hunter said. "The other two had to bring a partner in."

That may mean the work isn't as spread out among smaller companies as might be expected. The F-35 has subcontractors in about 40 states, a common practice in big defense platforms, which makes them more immune to congressional budget cuts, he noted.

"The threshold to be [an LRS-B] participant is a little higher because of the classified nature of much of the program," he said.

Since work ended 20 years ago on the Northrop Grumman-built B-2 bomber, the main Air Force combat aircraft development programs have been the F-22 and F-35.

The company has been sustaining the B-2 and has maintained a depot line for it since it ended production, Hunter said. Design and engineering teams have been in place to carry out its upgrades as well as for new unmanned aerial vehicle programs, Hunter said. …

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