"The B-52 is going to fall apart on us before we can get a replacement for it.”

Gen Curtis LeMay, the legendary cigar-chomping US Air Force (USAF) chief of staff, made that ill-timed prophecy in 1964, only nine years after Boeing’s eight-engined strategic bomber entered service.

However, the spiritual father of Strategic Air Command would no doubt be surprised to learn that even 51 years later, his rather pessimistic prediction had still not yet come to pass.

But so it was after months – or even decades – of waiting, the USAF on 27 October finally selected Northrop Grumman to develop and deliver the stealth bomber that would eventually replace the Boeing B-52 and Rockwell B-1.

Some might detect faint echoes of the air force’s then-secret decision to select Northrop to build the B-2, the bomber originally intended to replace the B-52. Lockheed was on the losing end of both programmes, first when its Senior Peg design lost in 1981 and then as a subcontractor to Boeing for the current Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) programme.

The contract protest process was available in 1981, but Lockheed never seriously considered it. Times have changed in the defence business though. Opportunities to win new programmes are scarce. Boeing now faces being shut out of the combat-aircraft business altogether, unless it wins the T-X trainer contest and manages to eke out F/A-18E/F production.

As the victor, Northrop may yet face the tougher challenge – keeping LRS-B sold. The B-2, of course, was originally intended to replace the B-52 fleet, but cost overruns and schedule delays, combined with changing priorities and budget cutbacks, reduced the programme to 21 aircraft.

Commercial aviation is so safe that fatal accidents occur only when a set of unusual circumstances combine in one moment. It seems the opposite effect holds true in military acquisitions, when programmes are successful only in random combinations of lucky events.

The USAF must keep its requirements steady and budget on track, despite evolving needs and a looming modernisation shortfall. Northrop, meanwhile, must keep costs down and schedules tight, knowing there will be failed tests and technical surprises. Congress is like a legislative fifth column – a risk to be managed.

But it is worth noting that the B-52 has no more time to spare. If LRS-B fails, LeMay’s 51-year-old warning might actually come true.

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We’re still flying the B-52?

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Source: Flight International