The outline shape of Northrop Grumman's proposed F/B-23 "regional" bomber concept may have been revealed inadvertently in the form of a desk-top model recently advertised on eBay, the on-line auction house.

The model, which was suddenly withdrawn from sale on 23 February, is dubbed F/B-23 RTA (Rapid Theater Attack), and is therefore believed to relate to earlier concepts predating the US Air Force's more recent long-range-strike studies. However, the overall configuration retains the basic rhomboid wing, and outward- canted empennage of the baseline YF-23A, in addition to an enlarged fuselage that forms the basis for Northrop Grumman's interim bomber proposal.

Other features of the model that may distance it from the YF-23-based actual proposal include axisymmetric engine nozzles and larger, semi-circular engine inlets.

Northrop Grumman declines to comment on the model, or its appearance, but confirms continued pursuit of USAF bomber studies and says "we are definitely interested in all those possibilities".

The model's appearance coincides with the decision by the USAF's Air Combat Command to launch an analysis of alternatives (AOA) around the third-quarter of 2005 that could lead to a competitive development programme for an interim long-range-strike aircraft.

The revised USAF plan indicates an 18-month AOA phase, leading to the creation of a capabilities development document by the end of 2007.

This could pave the way for a later system development and demonstration phase aimed at 2018 initial operating capability.

The 2006 USAF budget includes money for the regional bomber study work, but there is currently no additional funding in the service's five-year budget plan. Another issue is that the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F/A-22, which forms the basis for a potential proposed F/B-22 interim bomber variant, is likely to be out of production by then under the current budget plans.

The long-abandoned YF-23A Advanced Tactical Fighter emerged as the possible basis for a surprise contender for the USAF's interim bomber requirement last July when Northrop Grumman retrieved the second of the two YF-23A "Black Widow II" prototypes from the Western Museum of Flight in Hawthorne, California. The move, made ostensibly for repainting for display at an air fair that August, also included several cosmetic modifications believed to be linked to the bomber bid.

Under the original timetable, the interim bomber was intended to bridge the gap between the current bomber fleet and a next-generation aircraft planned for 2037. The present timetable calls for IOC by 2018 rather than 2015.



Source: Flight International