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New details emerge about LRS-B as contract announcement nears

With a contract announcement imminent, new details about the US Air Force’s Long-Range Strike Bomber have emerged that paint the classified project as being less exotic and probably more affordable than previously imagined.

This week, the service briefed no fewer than 12 Washington defence analysts about the bomber, and the main message was that the technologies being baked into the bomber are more mature and ready than previously disclosed.

There is no flying demonstrator, it has been confirmed, but plenty of prototyping activities and wind tunnel tests have been done, as well as parallel efforts to ready critical subsystems.

Sources who attended the briefing say the optionally-manned, penetrating bomber will be a collection of very mature technologies powered by an advanced derivative of an existing engine.

The two competitors for the bomber contract are Northrop Grumman and a Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership, and sources says the air force has two very mature proposals in hand.

“The designs are at an unusually high level of detail and development for a system in which the prime contractor has not been selected,” according to one government analyst at the briefing.

It has been 14 months since the air force released its request for proposals for what has been dubbed the “B-3” by some, but the anticipated award date seems to change with each season.

The original plan was for an award this spring (March to May), then summer (June to August) and now fall, since the winner won’t be announced until later this month or even October.

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The new bomber will be a flying wing design, but how close it will look to the Northrop Grumman B-2 is unclear.

US Air Force

The two designs are generations ahead of the Northrop Grumman B-2, but perhaps not radically different. There has been talk of an unmanned sidekick, like the Lockheed Martin D-21 reconnaissance drone for the M-21 Blackbird, but it now seems that the bomber operates alone or as part of a strike package with other airborne attack and reconnaissance assets.

LRS-B is not a repackaging of the Next-Generation Bomber that was cancelled in 2009, and it appears the air force has taken a more sophisticated approach this time around.

The aircraft will have global reach and a heavy payload, the sources say, but might be similar or smaller in size than the B-2.

The aircraft will eventually replace the Boeing B-1 and B-52, and can be equipped to carry any weapon in the American arsenal that makes sense, probably ranging from the 130kg Small Diameter Bomb to the 13,600kg Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

The project is being run by the air force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which is also responsible for the Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. The organization’s board is chaired by the Pentagon’s top acquisition executive and includes the air force secretary, chief of staff and assistant secretary for acquisition – subjecting the programme to less bureaucracy, but greater oversight from senior leaders than a normal programme.

Sources say LRS-B will be a multi-mission bomber designed for conventional and nuclear warfare, and it is obviously hardened for the nightmare scenario of nuclear combat.

The aircraft will be certified to carry nuclear weapons within two years of achieving initial operating capability (IOC) in the mid-2020s, and then outfitted to fly unmanned several years later.

Andrew Hunter, a defence industry analyst at the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, tells Flightglobal that the government appears to have given the prime contractors a great amount of design flexibility, and each has taken a best-of-breed approach to choosing subsystems.

The air force says it wants to purchase 80 to 100 new bombers at $550 million per copy, and Hunter says that figure was primarily a design constraint used as an “appetite suppressant”.

“The air force hasn’t built a bomber in 20 years, so there’s quite a bit of pent-up demand for the kinds of things the current bombers don’t do,” he says.

“That’s why these systems experience so much requirements creep, because they only come along every few decades, so it’s an all or nothing game for folks trying to get their specific capability put on the system. It seems like they were successful in using that cost target as a way to suppress that appetite.”

Instead of delivering everything at once, the air force is insisting the bomber comply with “open mission system standards,” which were recently defined in partnership with industry and are a baseline requirement for all USAF aircraft, sensors, communications equipment and weapons going forward. If done right, new capabilities should be installed in weeks or months, not years.

Lockheed Martin has been applying those the standards to rapidly integrate new hardware and sensors onto the U-2 surveillance aircraft. Northrop conducted similar trials with the B-2.

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LRS-B is expected to replace the air force’s aging fleet of Boeing B-1s and B-52s, and eventually even the Northrop Grumman B-2. The last B-52H was delivered in 1962, the B-1 ended its production run in 1988, and the last B-2 was delivered in 1997.

US Air Force

The air force stresses that this bomber programme has implemented “better buying power” acquisition best practices mandated by the Pentagon, and its senior leadership is using every tool at its disposal to set the programme up for success.

Hunter says the B-2 programme was setup to delivery hundreds of bombers, but when requirement was cut from upwards of 130 aircraft to 21, the cost per airplane ballooned.

He says building a stealth bomber is far easier said than done, and thinks the most difficult part will be integrating the engines, sensors and communications equipment into a low-observable airframe. LRS-B will proceed cautiously, he says, and the production rate will be kept low.

“This will not be a programme that’s ever in high-rate production,” he says. “The production rate will probably stay at a fairly modest clip, and that will keep the per-year expense a little lower than it’s been [in the past].”

No specific details about the bomber have been released except cost, and no brand names have been disclosed but Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed. The service won’t discuss broad specifications like approximate range and payload capacity.

Sources say the air force is concerned about the design being copied by potential adversaries (Russia and China), cyber espionage of suppliers, and the development of counter-weapons.

But the air force faces a dilemma, because it needs an estimated $41.7 billion from Congress over the next decade to support the programme, and likely double that amount through 2035.

To make the case for the bomber, Hunter thinks more details about the cost and schedule will be released at the time of the award and perhaps “a pretty picture of some kind”.

The B-2 was not revealed to the public until it was well into production, but whether the air force can afford that level of secrecy at a time of stagnant defence budgets remains to be seen.

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