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 next generation bomber may be based in part on the B-2 Spirit bomber(Credit: Northrop Grumman)

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."

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