November 29, 2006

Northrop expects its insight to pay
Company official sees B-2 work lasting and an advantage in future huge Air Force contracts.

Copley News Service

Northrop Grumman expects a steady flow of income for many years from maintaining and improving the B-2 bomber and is using that experience to compete for the Air Force's next generation of long-range strike programs, a Northrop official said Tuesday.

Northrop receives more than $500 million a year for periodic maintenance and a series of upgrades for the 21 B-2s, which the Air Force plans to keep in service for another 50 years, said David Mazur, a vice president in the corporation's El Segundo-based Integrated Systems sector. The B-2 is an ocean-spanning, stealthy bomber.


Northrop also is developing concepts for a program to produce a new extended-reach weapon system the Air Force hopes to deploy by 2020, and for an even more futuristic strike platform that could be combat ready 15 years later, Mazur told reporters.

Those programs could total billions of dollars.

The detailed requirements for the two new weapons have not been revealed, Mazur said.

But the preliminary indications are that the first new strike system will be a bomber, he said.

Although there have been suggestions that the new bomber could be unmanned, Mazur said a requirement that it be able to deliver nuclear weapons shows that it would be "manable," meaning that it could fly either with a crew or as a drone.

Mazur did not consider the new strike system a replacement for the B-2s because the Air Force has indicated it wants an aircraft that could fly 2,500 to 3,000 miles with a bomb load of about 25,000 pounds without refueling, far below the B-2's ability to fly 6,000 miles carrying 40,000 pounds of weapons.

He also predicted the new aircraft would fly at subsonic speeds, like the B-2, because it would be difficult to develop engines capable of supersonic flight at such distances by 2020.

Ideas for the later strike weapon include a hypersonic space plane that could reach the most distant targets in a few hours.

Both of the future programs are sure to draw bids from the other major U.S. military aircraft makers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Regardless of the outcome of that competition, Northrop expects many years of work to keep the B-2 an effective and survivable weapon.

Among the ongoing or planned programs are a modification of the B-2's radar-thwarting skin covering, which will make it easier to do routine maintenance; installation of systems that improve long-range communications; and a new radar with much better capabilities.

Planned improvements also include new bomb bay systems that would enable the bomber to carry a wider variety of weapons, ranging from a 250-pound precision attack bomb to the "massive ordnance penetrator," a 30,000-pound monster intended to destroy deeply buried, hardened bunkers.

Mazur said Northrop and the Air Force would work to divide those planned improvements into increments that can be funded without disrupting annual budgets.