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It is one of the great ironies of recent US landmark military campaigns — in Iraq in 1991, Serbia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 — that, amid the increasing deployment of the latest advanced weapons, a crucial aircraft involved in deploying them was much older than most of the personnel involved.
The US continues to rely heavily for strike power on the vast, eight-engine B52 bomber, which first flew in 1952. Some of the 76 remaining B52s are expected to remain in service until 2044.
The B52s’ extreme age and the growing sophistication of the enemy air defences that the vast, subsonic aircraft is likely to encounter have made progress on its replacement — a programme known as Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) — the top outstanding procurement priority for the US Air Force.
The military have been demanding a replacement that will, according to people familiar with the process, be less visible to enemy radar than any previous aircraft and hence more capable than ever of evading and then eliminating enemy air defences.
Yet, for the companies involved in bidding, the issues involved are almost as pressing as those facing the military. A consortium of Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest military contractor by sales, and Boeing is the frontrunner, according to Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think-tank. A win for the consortium would cement the two as the default suppliers of military aircraft to the US military.
The only challenger is Northrop Grumman, manufacturer of the B2 stealth bomber, the last bomber purchased by the US military. If it fails, Northrop looks likely to recede from the ranks of manufacturers that can handle the final assembly and integration of a large, complex military aircraft. The company currently assembles only a handful of aircraft each year, including its Global Hawk unmanned aircraft and turboprop airborne early warning aircraft.
Mr Thompson, whose think-tank receives funding from Boeing and Lockheed, says Northrop’s modest production rates are a sign it has fallen far behind its competitors.
“We have the breadth and depth of proven technologies and talent, plus the infrastructure and scale that matches the importance of this mission,” they say. “We are the right team for the entire life of the programme.”
Northrop nevertheless argues that it is well placed to win the work, because it built the US’s only long-range stealth bomber — the B2 — in the late 1980s. Having initially intended to buy 130 B2s, the US bought only 20 amid the changing strategic priorities of the end of the cold war, while Northrop fashioned a 21st by converting a prototype for active service. The Air Force currently has only 20 after one crashed on take-off in 2008.
“With our breadth and depth of experience in long-range stealth platforms and the requisite electronics systems necessary, we feel that we are extremely well positioned for the US Air Force’s LRS-B programme,” the company says.
The challenge for advocates of the bomber’s importance to the US military has been partly to explain why such an aircraft is still necessary. Aircraft such as the F-35 joint strike fighter — the biggest military procurement project in history, being built by Lockheed Martin — are well equipped to drop some munitions on opposing forces.
The US also has a formidable arsenal of cruise missiles which, under some circumstances, have formidable powers to evade enemy radar and destroy hardened bunkers.
However, advocates of a long-range bomber have successfully argued that only such an aircraft — expected to cost about $550m each — will be able to penetrate the air defences that Iran, China, Russia and other powers are constructing to keep US forces up to 800 nautical miles away from their borders. Only a large, long-range bomber, advocates argue, can hope to knock out enough of an opponent’s air defences to let other forces attack.
Despite the high capital cost of each of the 100 planned aircraft, the option could prove far cheaper than firing multiple cruise missiles costing $1.5m each over the aircraft’s lifetime, one person involved says. “Only a bomber can impose our will on other countries,” the person says.
For Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, the core challenge is to overcome what its backers say are misconceptions about the B2. Lobbyists for the rival bid have regularly quoted calculations that the aircraft requires 18 hours’ maintenance for every hour it flies — an argument that Northrop’s backers say is unfair, as long-range bombers fly rarely, but need to be kept constantly ready to do so.
The aircraft is also often criticised for its high costs — which worked out at about $2bn per aircraft. Northrop’s backers attribute that to the US defence department’s having cancelled the programme far short of the 130 aircraft originally intended, meaning that each of the delivered aircraft’s share of the development costs was much higher that expected.
Northrop’s backers say that the cost of the aircraft would fall sharply over its lifetime — and point out that the B2 has knocked out some of the most difficult targets in the US’s recent wars, including Serbia’s Danube bridges and reinforced concrete aircraft hangars in Libya.
Yet one of the few certainties is that — as the long-range bomber is the only new US military aircraft likely to be procured this decade and the work building 100 aircraft will produce substantial revenue for the winner — competition will remain intense.
There is a strong possibility that the losing bidder will mount a challenge after the decision is announced, probably in July.
The decision will also have far more than commercial consequences. As the continued role of the B52 makes clear, the choice of long-range bomber could affect the US’s military capabilities for at least the remainder of this century.