Richard Aboulafia: September 2015 Letter

Dear Fellow New Aircraft Program Enthusiasts,

Time to talk LRS-B. The USAF will decide next month if Boeing/Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman will build the next strategic bomber. I can’t handicap this competition. Nobody outside of the selection committee can either. Here’s why.

First, compare LRS-B with the JSF competition. JSF was easy and fun. We knew everything about the three designs, and picking the winner was relatively simple, even if JSF requirements were anything but simple. McDonnell Douglas’s competitor was first eliminated. That was easy to see coming because it was a non-compliant kludge with the word “Sorry” stenciled on the wing. Then, Lockheed Martin’s X-35, which looked like an F-22 single-engine strike derivative, faced off against Boeing’s X-32, which looked like an unhappy bat-guppy. As many of us said at the time, all the X-35 needed to win was to prove it could go vertical. It did, and it won.

Contrast that JSF experience with LRS-B. The closest thing we have to hard information on the LRS-B competitors is Northrop Grumman’s Super Bowl ad, featuring a generic flying wing mockup covered by a large tarp (drooled over by a pilot/actor resembling Agent Smith from The Matrix). We don’t know what the LRS-B competitors look like, or their performance metrics, or what components have been selected, even the engines. We don’t know the financial details of their proposals. We don’t know LRS-B Key Performance Parameters. We don’t even know if LRS-B is one plane, or a family of planes. In short, we got nothing. Almost nothing.

Should we even bother, then, discussing LRS-B? On one hand, as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” On the other hand, why should we listen to some fictitious Victorian detective? Here’s what I think about four LRS-B competition secondary factors:

First, there’s Experience. One thing we do know is that the Air Force wants to pay $550 million (FY2010) per bomber. That implies a plane with mature technologies. It will be stealthy, which means it will likely be a flying wing, and it won’t be supersonic, since range is the priority attribute. So, it will be a lot like a B-2.NG built the B-2 (albeit with help from Boeing). That’s a strong advantage, depending on how many people at NG are left from the B-2 days.

To combat NG’s advantage, the B/LM team was formed, pairing LM’s legendary Skunk Works stealth design capabilities with Boeing’s strong record in building large aircraft at an impressively low price. The JSF competition quip was that DoD should choose the LM design but have Boeing build it. This team is that quip come to life.

Second is Past Performance and Risk. It’s the aerospace industry; nobody has a great track record here, and large complex projects are fundamentally risky. But the KC-46 is in the headlines right now. That’s not good for B/LM.

Third is the Industrial Base dimension. This is complicated. Today, there are two companies with the ability to design modern stealth combat aircraft. Boeing, since it disbanded its Silent Eagle design team, has minimal stealth design capabilities (just UAVs). LM Skunk Works and NG are the only fully capable stealth aircraft designer (this part of LRS-B is curiously focused on two facilities in the Mojave Desert). So, if B/LM wins and NG loses, the US may find itself down selecting to just one design team. Of course, if NG wins, the damage done to LM Skunk Works would be bad for the US too, so it’s hard to see anyone having an advantage here.

Looking at industrial base issues from a manufacturing perspective, three companies have the ability to build modern combat aircraft. No matter who wins, that number will fall to two, so LRS-B will decide whether NG or Boeing is the second survivor (along with LM).Also, NG is likely pointing to LM’s Sikorsky acquisition as proof that LM is set to control too much of the total defense procurement pie.

These industrial base concerns are extremely important. But of all the secondary factors, they matter least, as far as the competition is concerned. You could argue that they should matter, but my understanding is that the source selection committee has no mandate to think about these things. There may be high-level intervention (from OSD or even higher) that mandates that industrial base factors change the outcome, but the people involved say that won’t be the case. There’s not much precedent for this kind of intervention; during KC-X, politics weighed in during the criteria definition phase, not in the source selection phase. So, the industrial base factor will probably be irrelevant. Unless it isn’t.

The Politics and Messaging angle is intriguingly one-sided. NG is doing all it can to promote the program, whether through high-profile advertising, political lobbying, think tank seminars, and whatever else. By contrast,B/LM has been quiet on the subject. Depending on your perspective, this means that either NG is desperate, or that they are sending a clever message to the source selection committee that they will do the most to protect the program (and that B/LM have higher USAF budget priorities –KC-46 and F-35A, respectively).The source selection committee might like this.

Add up all of the above four factors and you’ve got…an interesting collection of anecdotes. Some of these considerations may matter; history tells us that the best aircraft doesn’t always win (the YF-23, many believe, should have won over the YF-22 for the ATF competition), and that extraneous factors can tip the scales. Most of these anecdotes point to a Northrop Grumman advantage, but that’s going to be relatively unimportant compared to the technical and cost details associated with the proposals, and those remain highly classified. So, at this point, it’s a tossup.

As soon as there’s a decision, Teal Group will issue its first B-3 (as it will presumably be called) report. Until then,August aircraft reports include our annual World Rotorcraft Overview, plus updates of the F-22,C-130,AW139/189, Il-96,Tu-204, the Citation jets, and Honda Jet. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til Nuclear-Powered Bombers Make A Comeback,

Richard Aboulafia