Northrop Grumman\'s secret X wing bomber revealed

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Northrop Grumman's secret X wing bomber revealed

Northrop Grumman has won a classified Air Force contract to develop a secret bomber prototype. The initial version will be piloted, but an unmanned endurance version is a probable follow-on.

The RFP for the 2018 bomber set the baseline specifications as:
- Manned
- Subsonic
- 2,000+ mile combat radius
- Payload of 14,000-28,000 lbs
- Nuclear weapon capability
- Next-generation stealth (i.e. protection against low frequency radar)

In late April, the company revealed first-quarter financial results. Data indicated $2 billion in new "restricted programs" contract awards at Integrated Systems, the aircraft division. This almost certainly confirms what DTI first reported earlier this year: Northrop Grumman has a classified, sole-source contract to build a demonstrator for the U.S. Air Force's Next-Generation Bomber (DTI March, p. 30).

USAF budgets show no funding for the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB) itself in 2008, although documents show money for technology work in Fiscal 2008-10.

Northrop Grumman CEO Ron Sugar said last year that Integrated Systems had made strides in black programs and identified restricted projects as the top new-business opportunity. Taken together, the evidence points to a single, very large contract win. Northrop Grumman also acquired Scaled Composites in 2007, a company that can develop large prototype aircraft quickly.

The $2-billion contract casts new light on the decision in January by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to reveal their year-old collaboration on NGB. (Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman declined interview requests.)

Hailed as an NGB "dream team" combining Boeing's bomber experience with Lockheed Martin's stealth technology, the teaming now looks like an effort to catch up with a rival that has a lead in the next major U.S. combat aircraft program.

It is likely that the prototype will build on technology under development for the Navy's X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D), putting within reach USAF's goal of a 2018 initial operational capability date for the bomber. Industry and USAF sources have talked about a competition in 2010, leading to the start of systems development and demonstration in 2011. But it would be Northrop Grumman's to lose.

Events since 2000 placed Northrop Grumman in pole position. USAF interest in a replacement bomber was rekindled after 9/11, but USAF Secretary Jim Roche and Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper focused on the Lockheed Martin FB-22, seeing it as a low-risk solution that bolstered the case for the embattled F-22.

The departures of Roche and Jumper in 2005 coincided with a change in thinking. In October, USAF defined a three-stage Next-Generation Long-Range Strike program. Phase I would keep the force effective until 2018, with upgrades to aircraft. Phase II would be a new "2018 bomber," while Phase III encompassed hypersonic concepts. This was the end of the road for the FB-22, since nobody envisioned the F-22 remaining in production long enough to dovetail with Phase II.

Late in 2005, at a conference on unmanned combat air vehicles in London, there were signs of convergence between the bomber requirement and the Joint UCAS project. J-UCAS had been kicked off as a major effort three years earlier, but USAF was interested in a platform larger than the Navy could accommodate.

Much more on the link

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By netchicken: posted on 29-5-2008

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