The U.S. Air Force has said little in public about the performance requirements for the Long-Range Strike Bomber, and the two industry teams vying for the contract are mum about their proposals. There’s no way an outsider can evaluate which offering has greater merit. However, it is feasible to assess which team is more qualified to execute the program.

 So let’s assume we are a source-selection authority charged with selecting not a bomber, but a bomber team.   The choice is between a group led by Boeing on which Lockheed Martin is the primary teammate, and one led by Northrop Grumman. Which team is most qualified, based on relevant experience, current capabilities, financial resources and performance?

Relevant experience.   During the last three decades, Boeing and Lockheed Martin together have been lead integrators for 95% of the Air Force’s bomber and strike aircraft, including such well-known airframes as the F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighters, and the B-1 bomber.   Between the two of them, the companies have delivered more than 3,000 aircraft to the service since 1980. They continue to be the lead suppliers of fixed-wing aircraft to the joint force today, delivering over 300 fighters, airlifters and reconnaissance planes in 2014 alone.

By comparison, Northrop Grumman has been a relatively minor player. In recent years, Northrop Grumman has delivered fewer than 10 fixed-wing airframes per year to customers, typically manned turboprops and the Global Hawk unmanned aerial system (UAS). Its main role in military aviation today is building subassemblies for aircraft integrated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Current capabilities. Boeing operates production lines for fighters in St. Louis and for large military aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon in the Seattle area. It also is the world’s biggest producer of commercial transports. Lockheed Martin operates the only fifth-generation fighter line in the world, at Fort Worth, turning out the triservice F-35 fighter—an aircraft derived in part from the Boeing-Lockheed collaboration on the Air Force’s F-22 air-superiority fighter.

This high level of ongoing activity enables the two companies to sustain a huge workforce of engineers and technical specialists, a global supply chain and a sprawling maintenance network. Lockheed Martin has the only productionized low-observable-edge manufacturing capability in the industry, and the most advanced software-generation skills of any aircraft company. Boeing has more expertise than any other company in using advanced composites to manufacture large aircraft.

Northrop Grumman has nothing like this. Its main aircraft facility in Palmdale, California, is engaged in building UAS, modifying existing airframes and turning out subassemblies. Because it is not engaged in high-rate production of finished aircraft, Northrop Grumman does not have the articulated supply chain or cost-control systems developed over many decades by its competitors. It also lacks the kind of risk-management skills for which Lockheed’s Skunk Works has become famous.      

Financial resources. Boeing and Lockheed Martin together generated $136 billion in revenues last year.   Northrop Grumman generated $24 billion, marking its fourth straight year of shrinking sales.   The huge disparity in revenues—over 500%—between the two teams means Boeing and Lockheed Martin are far better equipped to deal with any changes in Air Force bomber plans. When Boeing was faced with a demanding Air Force customer in the second round of competition for the KC-46 tanker, it doubled down; Northrop Grumman pulled out, citing potential risks to its bottom line.

Past performance. Northrop Grumman cites its experience in building the B-2 bomber as a prime qualification, neglecting to mention that it features antiquated technology and is an upkeep nightmare (18 hr. of low-observables maintenance for every hour of flight). It also neglects to mention that at the height of production, B-2 was Boeing’s biggest defense program, employing 10,000 people; Boeing built the B-2’s outboard wing, aft center fuselage, landing gear, fuel system and weapons delivery system. Boeing then went on to work with Lockheed Martin on the first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22, which was a more advanced aircraft.

The Long Range Strike Bomber will be more capable than the B-2 in nearly every measure, including stealth. It will satisfy key performance parameters largely by adapting mature technologies and processes from other aircraft that Boeing and Lockheed Martin developed. Because Northrop Grumman has not been as intimately engaged in developing stealth or software for the F-35, or pioneering composite production techniques for large aircraft, it would have to play catchup in a wide range of skills.   

The conclusion is obvious: Boeing and Lockheed Martin comprise the most qualified team to develop a new bomber, and selecting Northrop Grumman would entail a far higher level of risk.