Northrop Grumman’s status as the US military’s third source of stealthy combat aircraft is doomed, whether or not it wins the $55 billion long-range strike bomber (LRS-B) contract from the US Air Force. At least, that’s an argument that’s been making the rounds for several months.

The reasoning goes, a victory for Boeing/Lockheed Martin leaves Northrop in an impossible position, forcing it to be swallowed by one of the LRS-B victors. If Northrop wins, on the other hand, Boeing’s combat aircraft business is in jeopardy. Rather than write-off a valuable hedge to a commercial market downturn, Boeing would most likely try to acquire Northrop. It’s an interesting theory, and it clearly has the US military brass worried.

Frank Kendall, head of acquisition, technology and logistics at the Department of Defense (DoD), has now asked Congress for new tools to prevent further top tier consolidation of the aerospace and defence industry.

Kendall cited concerns over Lockheed’s pending acquisition of Sikorsky as the source of his request, but the timing suggests he also wants to send a message to the LRS-B bidders and their shareholders.

On the surface, it seems a case of the DoD wanting its stealthy bomber-shaped cake and eating it, too. If the DoD is funded to support only two stealthy aircraft programmes – Lockheed’s F-35 and the still unclaimed LRS-B – then it can hardly expect industry to sustain three capable suppliers.

But the DoD’s position is not so unreasonable. The USA has awarded only four contracts to develop new combat aircraft over the last 30 years: the Northrop B-2, Lockheed F-22, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed F-35. It’s been more than 15 years since the last B-2 was delivered, but Northrop has sustained the capability to design and produce new aircraft. It’s been nearly a decade since Boeing completed development of the last derivative variant of the F/A-18, yet it is still capable of producing combat aircraft.

This longevity hasn’t come for free. Northrop’s skills, for example, have been sustained by involvement in the X-47B programme and, perhaps, a reportedly classified high-altitude intelligence-gathering aircraft.

The DoD’s best tool to preserving competition is still the purse. If the department wants to keep three competitors in the combat aircraft business, it does have to make it worth their while. But history has shown that these companies do not require deals as large as the F-35 and LRS-B to stay in the game.

Source: Flight International