The Air Force bomber competition is as mysterious as ever


A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber lands at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in 2006. The Air Force has quietly launched the contract competition for its eventual replacement, the long-range strike bomber. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Michael S. Dorus)

The Air Force just quietly launched its multi-billion dollar contract competition to field a new long-range strike bomber, which will eventually replace the legendary B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. How quiet was the move? There isn’t even notice about it on the front page of the Air Force’s website.

The service released a statement to select reporters Thursday instead. Air Force Secretary Deborah James said the bomber is a top priority for the service, and “will be an adaptable and highly capable system based upon mature technology.”

“We look forward to industry’s best efforts in supporting this critical national security capability,” she said, according to several media reports.

Few details have been released to the public, however, even though the formal Request For Proposals was sent to defense contractors on Thursday. That’s probably because the secretive program will field an aircraft that is highly classified. But the RFP also comes following a Nextgov.com media report Wednesday that suggested the Air Force may already have developed the aircraft through its classified budget.

The report cites a Congressional Research Service report published this month that notes the budget’s “Future Years Defense Program” for the long-range strike bomber — or LRS-B in military-speak — jumps from $258.7 million in fiscal 2013 to $3.4 billion in fiscal 2019.

“Aviation analysts and industry officials confirm CRS’s assessment that this funding stream resembles a production program more than a typical development profile,” the CRS report says. “This may indicate that significant LRS-B development has already been completed, presumably in classified budgets. Such prior development would also help explain how the Air Force intends to get the system from a Request for Proposals to initial operational capability in about 10 years, when equally or less-complicated systems like the F-22 and F-35 have taken more than 20.”

Defense titans Boeing and Lockheed Martin have expressed interest in pursuing the project together. Northrop Grumman, another defense contractor mainstay, also is pursuing it, and is expanding their facilities in Melbourne, Fla., as a result. The contract could cost at least $55 billion.

The secretive nature of the bomber RFP also has raised questions about whether the Air Force is trying to keep a lid on it after being stung repeatedly in the process of seeking a tanker plane. The contract was fought for bitterly and publicly until Boeing won it in 2011 and its main competitor, European Aeronautic and Defense Space, bowed out.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · July 10