Northrop Grumman wins Long Range Strike Bomber contract

Northrop Grumman on Tuesday won the contract to build the Pentagon’s Long Range Strike Bomber, a fleet of stealthy planes designed to strike deep into enemy territory that would be one of the Pentagon’s most significant weapons programs over the next decade.

In announcing the award, valued up to $55 billion or more, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said it represents a “technological leap” that will allow the U.S. to “remain dominant.” The bomber, which would carry nuclear weapons, is a “strategic investment for the next 50 years,” he said.

The competition to build 100 of the planes, which would enter service in the 2020s and a successor to the aging fleet of bombers, was especially fierce and could shake up the aerospace industry.

After years of planning, the announcement of the award finally shed some light on a plane that has been shrouded in secrecy. The Pentagon has not disclosed what the planes will look like, or everything they’ll be able to do. And the development costs, which may or may not have produced prototypes, have been hidden in the Pentagon’s classified “black budget.”

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“This is the last combat aircraft contract for another 10 years, at least,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. Without another major program in the works, the Pentagon “may find itself dealing with an industrial base restructuring that it doesn’t want, but can’t avoid,” he said.

The competition featured three of the top defense contractors — Northrop Grumman facing off against a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Northrop, which is based in Falls Church, was so eager to win the award it ran an advertisement during the Superbowl in some markets, touting its aerospace legacy.

But despite its long history as a major defense supplier, which includes building the B-2 bomber, Northrop was no longer a prime contractor on a major military jet program, and therefore had more to lose, analysts said.

By contrast, Boeing makes the F/A-18 Hornet and the KC-46 tanker, and Lockheed Martin is the manufacturer of the F-35, which is poised to replace several existing planes. A win for those companies would have further solidified their status atop the military aerospace chain.

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That was especially true for Maryland-based Lockheed. Not only is it the prime contractor on the $400 billion F-35 program, it recently acquired Sikorsky helicopter, maker of the Black Hawk helicopter and under contract to build a new fleet of presidential helicopters

With so much at stake, some analysts predicted that Northrop might have to spin off its aerospace division if it lost. The unit serves as a subcontractor to several major programs, including the F-35. But the Pentagon has signaled recently that it is growing increasingly concerned about consolidation in the defense industry after Lockheed Martin acquired Sikorsky.

Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, said that as a result government officials might frown upon further contraction, which could lead to less competition and higher prices.

“I think that barn door has closed,” he said.

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The Pentagon has said that each plane would cost $550 million in 2010 dollars. They laid down that maker early in the program, Air Force officials said, to signal how firm they would be on price.

In a meeting with reporters last week, William LaPlante, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, and Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, his military deputy, said they had gone to great lengths to prevent the kinds of problems that have plagued other programs. They have assigned a special team of acquisitions officials, known as the Rapid Capabilities Office, that handle classified programs with a track record of delivering “eye-watering capabilities,” LaPlante said.

Program officials have also worked hard to guard against “requirements creep,” where new bells and whistles are added to the program that invariably make it more complicated and expensive.

The B-2 bomber became a symbol of those types of failures. Initially the Pentagon planned to buy 132 of them, but ended up buying 21 for about $2 billion each as the Cold War ended.

“Why are we more confident about this program than many others?” Bunch said. “Over the last three years the program office has worked very closely with industry to ensure the designs and the requirements have remain stable.”

While the next-generation of bombers are expected to have some significant technological advancements over the current fleet, they are also relying on existing technology, which means the contractors won’t have to design and build new features that haven’t been tested, officials said.

“Just because [the technologies] are existing and mature doesn’t mean that they’re in the open,” LaPlante said. “It doesn’t mean that any of you even know about them.”

The fleet is also designed so that it can be upgraded to keep up as threats evolve and technology changes. The bomber contract comes as Pentagon officials are concerned that the advantages the U.S. has long had over potential adversaries is eroding. There is particular concern that countries are able to keep U.S. fighter planes away at greater distances.

And there is also concern about the aging of the current bomber fleet, which consists of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s.

“There are grandfather, son and grandsons who have flown the same B-52,” LaPlante said.

The new bomber would give U.S. officials the ability to penetrate deep into enemy territory, undetected, before unleashing massive amount of ordnance.

“We want to strike any target, at any time, and that’s what this platform is designed to do,” Bunch said.