Northrop Grumman out-guns rivals for B-3 contract

A shrouded next-gen something or other from a recent Northrop Grumman television ad.

Northrop Grumman won the contract to build the Air Force’s next-generation Long Range Strike Bomber, beating out a rival bid from a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

While it’s too soon to start gearing up local assembly lines, several Long Island defense firms said privately they expect to see future work from the contract, which will likely extend for a decade or more. And Jamie Moore, president of Hauppauge-based ADDAPT, an alliance of technology based aerospace and defense companies, was even more promising.

“Given Long Island’s long history with Northrop Grumman, and the capability of the supply chain here, I think we have a very good shot at getting some of this work,” he told Innovate. “Many of the capabilities this contract will require exist on Long Island and, in some cases, only exits here.”

The award, made after the markets closed on Tuesday, is expected to be challenged by the losing team, despite a much-scrutinized selection process that lasted months longer than expected.

“We believe our decision represents the best value for our nation,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at the announcement, which was officially made by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Carter did not announce an exact value for the contract, but industry experts expect it to top $55 billion depending on the number of aircraft ordered. The initial deal is for half that amount and covers development and the delivery of 21 aircraft. The Air Force could ultimately order as many as 100, however.

Northrop’s biggest challenge appears to be integrating the significant pre-contract design and development work done on the plane by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, a secretive team that handles “black” programs like the X-37B space plane. Although experts do not believe a complete prototype exists, the team has built scale models for testing and done extensive component development.

The RCO’s advance work was designed to hold down costs on the bombers, which are expected to enter service in the mid-2020s to replace the ancient B-52 and aging B-1 bomber fleets.

Cost control may also have played a part in Northrop’s selection: The company also has contracts for the B-2 Spirit and RQ-180, a still-secret unmanned surveillance aircraft that is designed to spy from what is known as “contested skies” like those over Iran and North Korea.

The next-gen bomber, which the media has dubbed the B-3, is expected to incorporate technologies from both those projects, including stealth designs. Beyond that, nothing is known publicly about the B-3’s size, weight or payload capabilities.

The contract award was the first in decades that did not consider the general health of the defense industry and focused solely on getting the best bang for the buck on the project from a single contractor. That could be a death blow to Boeing’s defense arm, which is wrapping up its last Pentagon project and likely will not be considered for new work for a decade.