Northrop Grumman beat Boeing and Lockheed Martin for a contract to develop the first U.S. bomber since the Cold War, a sweepstakes valued as high as $80 billion if all 100 planes sought by the Pentagon are built.
With $24 billion in 2014 sales, Northrop was the smallest of the suitors for the Long-Range Strike Bomber and had the most riding on the contest as the maker of the B-2, which entered service in 1989. Lockheed, which is building the F-35 fighter jet in west Fort Worth, and Boeing both have other warplanes in service or under development.
Boeing and Lockheed worked together on their unsuccessful bid for one of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons systems of the next decade. They set aside their rivalry to meld designs honed at Lockheed’s Skunk Works division with Boeing’s expertise in composites manufacturing.
The new plane will join the radar-evading B-2 and is due to enter service in the mid-2020s as the successor to the 37-year-old B-1 and the Eisenhower-era B-52. The Air Force wants a durable, stealthy aircraft that can fly deep into enemy territory to attack hidden or mobile targets.
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The bomber will employ a family of secret, strike technologies including munitions; sensors needed to find targets; jamming capabilities to suppress enemy radar; and communications able to survive the electromagnetic pulses from nuclear detonations. The first planes will be piloted and outfitted with conventional weapons, followed by a version that can carry nuclear arms. A drone version may follow.
“This is the biggest military aircraft contract that will be awarded in the current decade anywhere in the world,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. “It is intended to restore the reach and the survivability of the U.S. heavy bomber fleet, which has declined to barely a 100 planes since the Cold War.”
Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed are the final three U.S. makers of large military aircraft, and the contest was shrouded in secrecy. Defense officials haven’t even revealed how much has been spent to hone designs and prototypes since 2011 under classified contracts.
Northrop’s “legacy experience with the B-2 helped them understand what was required,” said Howard Rubel, an analyst with Jefferies. “It’s also a testament to its systems integration capability and its ability to think about networks in a broader scale.”
For Boeing and Lockheed, the loss of the award wasn’t as significant, Rubel said. Lockheed has “a number of great platforms in the works,” and Boeing may be able to find other defense opportunities, Rubel said.
Pentagon officials said Tuesday they don’t plan to disclose the names of subcontractors such as engine suppliers, citing national security concerns.