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What the new ‘Long Range Strike Bomber’ is replacing

In the biggest contract awarded by the Pentagon in over a decade, the U.S. Defense Department chose Northrop Grumman Corp to build a new long-range bomber. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Andrew Harnik/Reuters)

On Tuesday, the Pentagon awarded the contract for the new Long Range Strike Bomber to Northrop Grumman.

Northrop’s contract, valued at around $60 billion, beat out competitors Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

[Northrop Grumman may have won the Long Range Strike Bomber, but now the real work begins]

The plane, after hopefully entering service in the 2020s, will be designed to penetrate deep into enemy territory and will be capable of carrying nuclear and thermonuclear payloads. Also, if its procurement is anything like the F-35 joint strike fighter, it will be a budget nightmare.

The Long Range Strike Bomber is meant to phase out the United States’ aging fleet of bombers, which includes the B-52, an aircraft that has been in service since the 1950s.

So, as the Pentagon looks to the future filled with new bombers (though no one knows what the new one will look like), it’s worth taking a look back at what the Long Range Strike bomber will be replacing in the coming years.

The B-1B Lancer “Bone”

The B-1 entered service in the 1980s and is a long-range bomber that can operate in all weather conditions. It has a four-man crew that includes a pilot, co-pilot and two weapon systems officers (pronounced “Wizzo”). To protect itself from enemy fire it relies on a highly advanced counter-measure system and its ability to fly low and at supersonic speeds. The aircraft has a “variable sweep wing” design (think Top Gun’s F-14 Tomcats), which gives it the ability to fly fast and also fly slow without stalling. It can carry a large variety of ordnance including up to 84 Mk. 82 “dumb” 500lb pound bombs or 24 GPS guided JDAMs. While the aircraft is capable of providing close air support, it uses a radar for targeting so grid coordinates are discouraged when providing target locations. If you ever find yourself in a pickle where “Bone” is needed, make sure you’re savvy with reading a map using latitude and longitude.

The B-52H Stratofortress

First introduced in the 1950s, the B-52 is not only an enduring image of the Cold War, but also a pop-culture icon. The B-52 was a co-star in “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” and is usually portrayed as a belligerent peace symbol on t-shirts that almost always have “peace through superior firepower” written somewhere on them.

The B-52 has a five-man crew and was first designed to deliver a nuclear payload deep into enemy territory. Depending on its configuration, a B-52 can carry either 45 munitions or 51 munitions. Like the B-1, it uses radar for targeting and needs a lot of mileage to turn around. Most notably, B-52s were the primary platform used during the Vietnam War’s “Arc Light” missions which consisted of heavy bombing runs deep into North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Depending on its configuration a B-52 can carry either 45 munitions or 51 munitions. Like the B-1, it uses radar for targeting and needs a lot of mileage to turn around.

The B-2 Spirit

While not exactly being replaced by the new Long Range Strike Bomber, the B-2 will likely serve alongside it for decades once the new bomber enters service. The aircraft, costing roughly $2 billion per unit, is the United States’ premier force multiplier. Its flying wing design and myriad of advanced technologies allows it to slip into heavily contested enemy airspace invisible to enemy radar. “Undetected inbound, unscathed outbound,” as one pilot described his bombing mission over Baghdad in 2003 to Air and Space Magazine. The B-2 flies with a small crew of two and is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, bombs and specially designed cruise missiles.