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

By Stew Magnuson
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 LRS-B is 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 reconnaissance-strike 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.

Still, there is nothing like building a combat aircraft from a clean sheet, he said.

Northrop will have to go on a hiring binge, meaning more high-paying jobs for engineers and technicians needed to build the aircraft. “They will have to staff up. This is a big program. This is real growth for the company for sure.”

Aboulafia said: “It has been a very long time since we have had a defense program that actually did do something for technology development. There has been an awful lot of off-the-shelf and derivatives for so many years now.”

What is the Super Hornet but a derivative of the Hornet, he said. The F-35 used a lot of F-22 technology. “It didn’t really break a lot of new ground. It’s a good plane. But this is the first thing we have seen in a very long time that really does advance the state of the art.”

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, if their protest is not successful, will continue on with their own major military aircraft development programs, the KC-46 tanker and F-35 joint strike fighter, respectively.

Hunter said Lockheed Martin will now focus all of its attention on the F-35 and finishing its software development program. If it had won, it might have had to pull design teams away from the F-35 to support the bomber. That may have been detrimental to both programs, he added.

And there are other fixed-wing aircraft competitions on the horizon as consolation prizes. The joint surveillance and target attack radar system aircraft (JSTARS) and the T-X fighter trainer program are two of the largest.

All the teams are pretty well positioned for those competitions, Hunter said.

“When you look at JSTARS recap, the airframe is something that plays to Boeing’s strengths as well as companies like Gulfstream,” he said. “The trainer program may be more in Lockheed’s wheelhouse because it is closer in nature to the F-35 program.”

Aboulafia didn’t see many positives for the two runners-up. Boeing, if it wants to remain in the combat aircraft business, may have to make an offer for Northrop Grumman’s aircraft division, he said. However, some of the technologies being developed for the bomber may feed back into the F-35, which would be good for that program.

At around 2020 is when the Boeing-built F-15 Eagle and the F-18 Super Hornet production lines shut down, Aboulafia noted. “If you’re not building a combat aircraft, you’re not going to spend a decade keeping your design departments alive for [a sixth-generation fighter] or whatever the next big combat aircraft competition might be. The ramifications are huge,” he said.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, said he doesn’t agree with the naysayers on the program. What’s lost in the discussion is what the new bomber will bring to the nation, he said in an interview.

“The value of the system in terms of revitalizing our ability to reach anywhere in the world in a set of hours to conduct a variety of tasks across the spectrum of conflict — and the capability that this system brings to the nation — is absolutely incredible. That is the positive of this,” he said.

What lawmakers think about the program is crucial, panelists said at a Mitchell Institute discussion on the program. The Air Force has to think about the messages it is conveying to Congress.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Air Force has told Congress that it needs 80 to 100 long-range strike bombers. When faced with “squishy” numbers such as these, lawmakers will go for the lowest — in this case, 80, she said.

Deptula said the program critics are too caught up with numbers. The Air Force said the program will come in at $550 million per aircraft in 2010 dollars.

“Value is measured not in cost per individual unit, but what effects it can create,” he said. It will have long range. It will have the lethality, and the potential for growth incorporating new sensors and weapons systems. It will have survivability and payload capacity that is not resident on any one aircraft.

“This isn’t your father or mother’s long-range bomber,” he said. It will do much more than simply drop ordnance. He cringes when it is called the B-3.

“We have to quit thinking about the LSR-B as a bomber. It’s a long-range sensor-shooter,” he said. He called the per unit cost of $550 million a “bargain.”

Secrecy is another area in which the Air Force can improve its message. About 5 percent of lawmakers care about the strategic implications of fielding the long-range strike bomber and the other 95 percent care about the manufacturing jobs that are going to be in their districts, Aboulafia said at the discussion.

The question of who Northrop Grumman’s partners are, and therefore, where the jobs are going to becomes important during the budget battles, Aboulafia said. It is well known, for example, who is supplying what to the F-35 program, and these two aircraft will be competing for the same pot of money in the 2020s.

Until then, it’s in low-margin research and development until the early part of the 2020s when manufacturing begins in earnest, he added.

Although Northrop hasn’t made any announcements, the logical place from a production perspective to do the work is at the company’s Palmdale, California, facility, Hunter said. The company does F-35 subassembly in the plant, which has the perfect amount of extra space there to do a bomber program, said Hunter, who has visited the facility.

Sharing the space with the F-35 means not having redundant overhead. “That’s all to the Air Force’s benefit,” he said.

There are plenty of things that could — and probably will go wrong — on such a complex program, Hunter said. However, “the nation’s design expertise is going to be substantially enhanced by the fact that this program is going to launch — provided it is successful — and I’m fairly optimistic on that score.”

Topics: Aviation, Business Trends, Defense Department

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.