For defense wonks, today was bigger than Christmas. After all, that holiday comes once a year. The creation of a new stealth bomber is once-in-a-generation, and today the U.S. Air Force announced that Northrop Grumman won a contract that amounts to $55 billion or more to build the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB.) That amount could grow to as much as $100 billion over time.
The company beat a team formed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to build what Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called the "backbone" of the Air Force's ability to strike and deter enemies. Northrop's LSRB is scheduled to have "initial operational capability" in 2025, and fly for real starting in 2040. There is no mission designator for this aircraft yet. It will cost $564 million per plane in current year dollars.
There's more to this than just a new warplane. The LRSB is also a cultural and economic event with enduring ripple effects. It will set the standard for military aviation; become the chief talking point for bitter debates over defense acquisition; influence nuclear weapons arsenals in Russia and China; kick foreign espionage efforts into higher gear… and all of this will happen before a prototype even flies.
In a sign of the program's importance to aerospace industry and U.S. economy, the Air Force intentionally delayed today's announcement until stock markets closed to avoid disruptions when the news broke, according to Pentagon sources. Shares of Northrop Grumman were up 6.3% in after-hours trading.
The only people who would have been sure-fire winners no matter what the outcome today are the locals in southern California, where the contenders develop secret warplanes. No matter who won, this aerospace development program was fated to reshape the economy in the Palmdale area and spawn a generation of engineers.
But the entire world is paying attention to this program, or soon will be. New military planes come and go, but an American bomber is in its own league. Like aircraft carriers, they symbolize the United States' ability to go anywhere in the world and exert its influence, no matter who or what is in the way. Or, to borrow a phrase from the Air Force, the Pentagon wants to reassure the Commander-in-Chief that they can "hold any target in the world at risk."
If the USAF wants to make good on its promise to blow up anything, anywhere, it will need this new hardware to get it done. The Air Force's newest bomber, the B-2 Spirit, rolled off the assembly line in 1988. The aircraft that the LRSB is meant to replace are getting old—the average B-52 Stratofortress is more than 50 years old, and the B-1 Lancer fleet has a mean age of 27 years. These workhorse man-killers will fly until 2040, when the new bomber is ready for action.
But how do we even know what that fight will look like in 2040? We don't. "We're designing the aircraft to be adaptable," said Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
What little we know about the LRSB already paints a picture of a bleak future glimpsed by the USAF trend-spotters: Advanced radar and deadly surface-to-air missiles will guard targets, making full-aspect stealth shaping and radar absorbing materials necessary in a strike bomber. Senior Air Force officials have told Seniorhelpline that the bomber will be rated to carry nuclear weapons, acknowledging the enduring existential threat posed by Russia, China, and North Korea. The initial focus on carrying conventional weapons envisions a future of deep strike missions using precision-guided munitions.
When people in 2045 wear "Peace through Superior Firepower" T-shirts, they'll be stenciled with an outline of the LRSB's profile.
This bomber will have to accommodate exotic weaponry, such as directed energy beams, advanced decoys, and computer viruses. "A platform with terrific penetrating capability and wonderful avionics, from a cyber-warfare standpoint, is a fantastic asset," aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group told Seniorhelpline.
So a new era has begun. Or, perhaps more accurately, the beginning of a new era just ended. What happens next is anyone's guess. Some aircraft programs die, but most survive to be produced in lesser numbers than envisioned. Many programs lose their way, produce huge cost overruns, face Congressional scorn and generate inevitable comparisons to teacher salaries. Sometimes the companies endure lengthy rematches with their competitors after the latter successfully challenges the awarding of the contract. There's plenty of loot at stake, after all. (No wonder Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James made it a point to say the Air Force made its choice with a "high level of transparency with industry partners and scrutinized by Department of Defense peer reviews.") In this case, Boeing and Lockheed have a 100-day window to protest the decision.
In fact, in many ways a bomber's existence is most at risk during its development, before its first sortie. So savor this moment, bomber fans, because from here on out it'll be a bumpy ride.