U.S. Air Force is 'Very Close' to Selecting Bomber Contractor

 - October 22, 2015, 11:12 PM
William LaPlante, shown testifying before Congress, briefed reporters on the Long Range Strike-Bomber. (Photo: Department of Defense)

While saying that they are “really, really close” to announcing the selection of a contractor to begin development of the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), U.S. Air Force officials offered precious few other details on the secretive program during a roundtable discussion with reporters October 21 at the Pentagon. They suggested that the service will soon award an engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract calling for about four flying test aircraft, with options for the first five production lots of 21 new bombers.

Since the start of the LRS-B program in 2011, the Air Force has awarded risk-reduction contracts to industry to help ready component technologies. It released a request for proposals in July 2014 that was only generally described to the public. Northrop Grumman and the team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin are contending for the EMD contract award.

At the urging of reporters, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James agreed during the recent Air Force Association conference to conduct a briefing for the media similar to one the service organized for Washington-area think tanks in September. “This is a program that is in source selection and highly classified, so you can imagine trying to be transparent,” said William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. “We’re doing this because we owe it to people to do this, not because of any other reason.”

LaPlante added: “The simple idea behind the classification of the program is we need to preserve as long as we can the advantage of what we’re doing so that adversaries can’t already be trying to build defenses against it.” The Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, whose other projects include the secretive X-37B orbital test vehicle, has run the LRS-B program from its start. The military has 80 people working on the effort.

Overall, the Air Force appears to have settled on 100 as the number of new bombers it needs to replace aging B-52 and B-1B bombers. Previously, it described a range of 80 to 100 new aircraft.

“How did we get 100? We looked at the mission sets, we looked at the requirements, we factored in what we routinely do with aircraft, training, depot maintenance and test, and the team came up with the requirement of 100 aircraft to be able to execute all those missions,” said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Air Force military deputy for acquisition. “Why is a Long Range Strike-Bomber important? The threat, and our adversaries, have watched what we have done for many years with air power. They have evolved. They continue to evolve to make us stand off more, and they try to minimize our capabilities to strike targets.”

Since 2011, the military and industry have worked from an agreed set of LRS-B requirements based on using “mature or existing technologies” in a modular platform that allows for upgrades or new technology insertion. The program has completed preliminary design and manufacturing readiness reviews, and platform designs are at the subsystem level. LaPlante revealed that some components “are operationally being used” already, and that some technologies are unknown to the general public. “Just because they’re existing and mature (technologies) doesn’t mean that they’re in the open, doesn’t mean that any of you even know about them,” he said.

The service has already said that each LRS-B by design will cost an average of $550 million in Fiscal Year 2010 dollars (or $606 million in current dollars), the so-called average procurement unit cost (APUC). The projected $55 billion total cost of procurement does not include the cost of development. Following the selection of a contractor, the Air Force will release an independent cost estimate of the development.

“We’ve established a high level of tech maturity, higher I would say than any other developmental program that we’ve tried to initiate at this phase for a new aircraft,” Bunch said. “These stable requirements and the mature platform designs make us very confident in the cost and the execution of the program as we get ready to initiate.”