The U.S. Air Force soon will select a prime contractor to develop and build its stealthy Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), an aircraft critical to ensuring the nation’s capability to project military power at any time, and at any place. On the surface, industry analysts have characterized the competition between the team of Boeing-Lockheed Martin and the one led by Northrop Grumman as a toss-up. However, a deeper dive into Air Force requirements and the teams’ capabilities establishes Northrop Grumman as an overwhelming favorite to produce the LRS-B. Here’s why:

The ability to focus and prioritize. Owing to the missteps characterizing the acquisition of the F-35 fighter and KC-46 tanker, the Air Force needs to be assured of a prime contractor willing to focus its attention, resources and advocacy on the new bomber. However, the Boeing/Lockheed Martin team is overwhelmed with trying to fix other Air Force priority programs. Boeing finds its military business distracted by a surprisingly painful tanker program, while Lockheed Martin is consumed by F-35 delays and substandard performance. Consequently, an LRS-B in development would be seen as a lower priority for the Boeing-Lockheed team when the KC-46 and F-35 are in their production phases, finally generating profits. 

Recent history supports this contention. When the Air Force push for more F-22s threatened F-35 revenues, Lockheed Martin’s support for the F-22 quickly evaporated. Similarly, it is improbable that Lockheed would give up some F-35s or Boeing would slow the KC-46 line to keep the LRS-B on track—making the LRS-B a billpayer  for those troubled programs. In contrast, Northrop Grumman is focused on the bomber and positioned to deliver on time and on budget.

The relevant experience needed to deliver. The Air Force procurement chief testified to Congress that the cap on the cost of each bomber previously established—$550 million per aircraft in 2010 dollars—will be retained in this competition. Northrop Grumman is the only company to develop, build, field and sustain a stealthy, long-range strike aircraft—the B-2 bomber. That experience of reducing sustainment costs, which can total up to 80% of a weapon system’s life-cycle cost, has resulted in the B-2 costing less per aircraft than other large Air Force aircraft of similar fleet size. Sustain a B-2 for less than an RC-135? Northrop’s experience enables it. In contrast, although the Boeing/Lockheed team will tout its experience in building large commercial airliners and fighter aircraft, producing and sustaining an advanced bomber is a complicated enterprise demanding relevant leadership and engineering talent. Past performance matters. Building a B-2 is a far more complex undertaking than modifying a commercial aircraft into a tanker, yet Boeing is still struggling to deliver the KC-46 a decade after initiating development.

The capability to integrate stealthy subsystems.The Air Force understands that stealth is a combination of technology and tactics, calling for the integration of subsystems enhancing the aircraft’s low observability. Here Northrop shines with its stealth subsystems credentials. When Lockheed needed such systems, it turned to Northrop Grumman for stealth radar on the F-22 and F-35, stealthy communications links for the two fighters, and the F-35’s communications-navigation systems, infrared sensors, and center fuselage with its stealthy engine inlets. The Defense Department also will push an unmanned variant of the LRS-B; Northrop Grumman’s experience with the Air Force Global Hawk and Navy’s stealthy unmanned X-47B places it well ahead of the competition.

Why Northrop Grumman will win. The Air Force needs a contractor dedicated to bringing in the LRS-B on time and on budget, yet Boeing and Lockheed are teamed because neither is positioned to win alone. Boeing lacked stealth credentials, while Lockheed faced pushback on the F-35.

In the matter of all-aspect stealth, where design is everything, how would Boeing as prime contractor give design authority to a subcontractor? For that matter, why would Lockheed share its stealth fighter design experience with Boeing in the LRS-B program and jeopardize its advantage over Boeing in the next, “sixth-generation” fighter competition? 

The lack of stealth bomber experience, the management risks associated with the Boeing/Lockheed team, and the dedication of those companies’ resources to other Air Force priorities make them an unwise choice to produce the nation’s next long-range strike bomber. Northrop Grumman leads a team with the experience, portfolio, dedication and focus to affordably develop, field and sustain the new stealth bomber. That’s why it will win.