Bidders for the U.S. Air Force’s new bomber have produced elaborate designs of their competing offerings, according to a congressional assessment.
Northrop Grumman Corp. and its rival, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., submitted “two robust designs” at “an unusually high level of detail and development for a system in which the prime contractor has not been selected, according to senior program officials,” the Congressional Research Service said in a report dated Wednesday.
The research service gleaned the information from a briefing that Air Force officials gave to about a dozen defense analysts on Tuesday, providing the most detailed assessment to date of the highly secret program. It may have been an effort to shape the thinking of widely quoted defense analysts before the award is announced. Jeremiah Gertler of the CRS was among those briefed.
The Long Range Strike Bomber will be the eventual successor to the aging B-1 and B-52. Air Force spokesman Edward Gulick said the briefing shouldn’t be seen as a signal the Air Force award of the bomber is imminent.
Air Force officials at the briefing said the award for the bomber contract is expected in October, although one of them added, “I’ve been saying ‘a couple of months’ for five or six months now,’” Gertler wrote in the assessment published Wednesday. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, will be responsible for selecting the contest winner, according to the report.
The initial bomber will be manned, “with unmanned operations possible several years after initial operational capability” in the mid-2020s, according to the assessment. The bomber would be qualified to carry nuclear weapons “two years or so after” the initial operational capability, Gertler wrote.
Air Force officials said both of the competing designs “use substantial amounts of existing subsystems,” reducing technological risk “and presumably, shortening the time required for” the engineering and development phase once a contract is awarded, Gertler said.
“They see the most challenging part” of the bomber program “as integration of technologies’ in the development phase, Gertler wrote.
‘‘Air Force officials took great pains to emphasize’’ the bomber is ‘‘part of a family of systems, with the implication that it is the node of a larger, distributed, network of sensors and communications, not all of which may have been publicly disclosed,’’ he wrote.
The radar-evading stealth qualities of both aircraft ‘‘have been investigated in detail against current and anticipated threats and current designs are complete down to the level of, for example, individual access panels,’’ he wrote.
‘‘No mention was made of speed, although the combination of long-range, large payload and costs constraints’’ of $500 million per plane in 2010 dollars for basic construction ‘‘strongly suggest’’ that the bomber ‘‘will be subsonic,’’ he said.
Attendees at the briefing, which was reported earlier by Defense News, also included Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute; Andrew Hunter of the Center For Strategic and International Studies; Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group; Mark Lorell of the Rand Corp.; Rebecca Grant, an independent aerospace consultant; Moshe Schwartz, an acquisition analyst with the CRS; and James McAleese of McAleese & Associates.
(Corrects aircraft being replaced in fourth paragraph of story published Sept. 2.)