Northrop Grumman chosen to build next US strategic bomber
The US Air Force has awarded a US$21.4 billion contract for its Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) to Northrop Grumman. The next generation of strategic bombers will replace the aging fleets of B-52s and B-2s, and will be capable of carrying heavy or nuclear payloads against new generations of anti-aircraft systems.
The contract is a bit of a surprise, since Northrop Grumman is only a sixth of the size of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who were partners in a rival bid. However, Northrop has strong experience in stealth technology and bomber construction, which seems to have offset the partnership's advantages of size.
Operating on a budget based on the Northrop's bid and an independent assessment to prevent underbidding, the two-part contract covers development and production spread over two decades. The first part is the US$21.4 billion for Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) to cover development costs with incentives against overruns. The balance covers 80 to 100 LRS-B aircraft to be built in five tranches of 21 aircraft with production extending into the 2040s. Cost per aircraft is estimated at US$511 million each, depending on the number purchased.
The LRS-B is expected to enter service by the mid 2020s and though its specifics are still highly classified, it's likely to be based on the still-secret RQ-180 unmanned surveillance aircraft and the B-2 Spirit bomber currently in service. Based on the program requirements, it will be capable of carrying out missions involving strategic bombing, tactical bombing, and global strike, surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence, and electronic attack. It will also carry nuclear weapons, but, due to arms control treaties, not until older nuclear bombers start retiring.
One goal of the LRS-B is to avoid the massive cost overruns of previous defense aircraft programs by relying on existing technology where possible to prevent spiralling development costs, which left the B-1 and B-2 programs as rumps of their intended deployments. The LRS-B will probably be lighter and smaller than the B-2, though with better aerodynamics and efficiency. The latter is particularly important because the high-tech B-2 is only as efficient as a B-52.
According to Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante in an interview with Aviation Weekly, the LRS-B will use lessons learned from previous warplane projects and includes technologies that are already under development and even operational, though their exact nature is classified. The bomber will use more advanced materials and greater stealth. It will also use open architecture to allow for upgrades without major alterations and testing, which will help to keep down development and maintenance costs.
"The LRS-B will provide our nation tremendous flexibility as a dual-capable bomber and the strategic agility to respond and adapt faster than our potential adversaries," says Geneal Mark A. Welsh III, Chief of Staff of the Air Force. "We have committed to the American people to provide security in the skies, balanced by our responsibility to affordably use taxpayer dollars in doing so. This program delivers both while ensuring we are poised to face emerging threats in an uncertain future."
Sources: Northrop Grumman, US Air Force
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That this bomber is nuclear capable signals to potential aggressor nations that they had better think twice before joining in battle against America, especially those who are nuclear capable.
Unfortunately those second thoughts might well make them adopt terrorist tactics (including 'false flag' operations). Imagine what would happen if suitcases containing atom bombs (think Hiroshima, Nagasaki sized devices) were secreted within large centres of population across America and timed to go off at random intervals without warning, probably over a period of several months. Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, the first one would probably be placed in Washington and set to detonate during a State of the Union address.
How on earth could they identify the aggressor? It is worth remembering that one cannot reassemble a nuclear weapon after it has been detonated the way one can conventional devices (as happened at Lockerbie). Let's face it, there are a lot of suspects to choose from. Throw in the machinations of devious heads of state and the possible scenarios are legion.
The only thing not in doubt is that the devices exist. (Indeed, one hears terrible rumours about the lack of secure storage for American and ex-Soviet battlefield nuclear weapons!) If atom bombs are too wild an idea, think 'dirty bombs.' They would cause about as much panic and there is a lot of radioactive waste hanging around just waiting to find a use.