Ashton Carter meets with Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed executives about the
military's plans to build a fleet of radar-evading, long-range bombers.
Deep in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by tiers of barbed-wire fence, the
nation's largest defense contractors work in secrecy designing and building the
latest military aircraft at Air Force Plant 42.
The military's top weapons buyer quietly visited the Palmdale facility
this month to talk with leading aerospace executives about
plans to build a fleet of radar-evading bombers that the military hopes to have
ready for action by the mid-2020s.
The plane would be the first long-range bomber built in the U.S. since the last
of the 21 bat-winged B-2 stealth bombers by Northrop Grumman Corp. rolled off
the assembly lines at Plant 42 more than a decade ago. The Air Force owns
the 5,800-acre industrial park and leases space to aerospace contractors.
Now on the Pentagon wish list is a proposed fleet
of 80 to 100 nuclear-capable bombers that could operate with or without a pilot
in the cockpit.
Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with
representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., Pentagon
spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. These companies are expected to vie for
the estimated $55-billion contract that is expected to provide jobs and decades
of work for Southern California's aerospace industry.
Although the contractors declined to discuss the high-level meetings, Northrop
and Boeing were quick to express interest in competing for the contract when the
acquisition plan is laid out.
"Northrop Grumman employees in California designed, produced and currently
maintain the nation's newest bomber in the U.S. Air Force fleet, the B-2 Spirit
stealth bomber," said Randy Belote, a Northrop spokesman.
"Our people and capabilities in California and across the company," he said,
"stand ready to assist the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force in meeting
the nation's future requirements for the long-range-strike mission."
A Boeing spokesman said the company "will compete in the bomber competition,"
and Lockheed declined to comment.
This program may also have a broad effect on the mom-and-pop machine shops and
other contractors that could be called upon to make parts for the bomber, said
Fred Downey, a national security analyst with the Aerospace Industries Assn., an
Arlington, Va.-based trade group.
Federal spending is under major scrutiny in Washington, and Congress certainly
would examine any proposal for a new jet. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates,
who himself has advocated scaling down Pentagon spending, has repeatedly
defended the need to acquire bombers.
"It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can
be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service," he said at a news
briefing this year. Gates is slated to hand over the reins of the Pentagon to
CIA Director Leon Panetta next month.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed
Services Committee, supports the project.
"The Air Force and the Defense Department have made clear that replacements are
needed for America's aging bomber fleet and that long-range strike should be a
priority," McKeon aide John Noonan said. "The chairman concurs with their
There is $197 million set aside for developing the bomber in the 2012
fiscal budget, and $3.7 billion is allocated for the program over the next five
years, said Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman.
The program's prospects in Congress also look strong, with the support of
prominent congressional Republicans such as McKeon.
"The Defense Department is serious about doing this program," said Todd
Harrison, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessments in Washington, D.C. "The last time they tried to upgrade their
bomber force, they bought 21 B-2s. That's not nearly enough to modernize the
The B-2 fleet now numbers 20 — one crashed in Guam in 2008. The Air Force also
has 66 B-1 bombers, built in the 1980s, and 85 B-52 bombers, which were built in
the 1960s and modified for use today.
"The Air Force believes it's overdue for an upgrade," Harrison said, adding that
funding for the new bomber program could already be underway through the Air
Force's $12.6-billion classified, or "black," budget for weapons research and
Building bombers under the black budget is not unprecedented. The U.S.
government didn't lift the veil on the B-2 program until a decade after it had
begun, revealing one of the largest weapons development efforts since the
Manhattan Project produced the atomic bomb in the 1940s.
The Air Force and Northrop went to great lengths to conceal even the smallest
detail of the B-2 program. Many suppliers had no idea they were making parts for
the bomber. The government created dummy companies that ordered the parts, which
were often picked up in the middle of the night by unmarked trucks. Northrop
said that at its height, the B-2 program involved about 40,000 employees at
aerospace facilities all over the country, including about 15,000 in the
This time, "the cloak-and-dagger should be even better," said John Pike,
director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. "The
government is not going to want to advertise a program like this."
Gates said the new bomber would be "using proven technologies, an approach that
should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity."
Such comments have led many defense analysts to believe the future bomber will
look a lot like the stealthy jet-powered drones that are currently flying from
Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed.
Northrop has a drone, dubbed X-47B, that is designed to carry laser-guided bombs
and be launched from an aircraft carrier. Lockheed's RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone,
called the "Beast of Kandahar," was developed at Lockheed's famed Skunk Works
and reportedly was used during the raid at Osama bin Laden's compound. Both were
built at Plant 42.
Boeing's fighter-size Phantom Ray drone is undergoing test flights at Edwards
Air Force Base, just north of Palmdale.
"All of them look like baby B-2s," said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author
of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare. "They have key stealth design
features, which allow them to penetrate enemy air defenses."
Although the program is still far from a certainty, Singer believes that
fielding a new bomber is crucial. "It's a national security concern."