If you can be in, around or anywhere near the Air Force Association show on the outskirts of Washington DC this week, you will be reminded that Northrop Grumman built the USAF's last stealth bomber and would be very happy to be selected to build the next one. It is a lobbying task, however, that is rather complicated by the fact that contractors are not permitted to use the program's name (Long Range Strike - Bomber or LRS-B), let alone discuss any technical details of the new aircraft. Northrop Grumman has chosen to promote its stealth credentials by handing out copies of a new book by air power extern Dr Rebecca Grant. "B-2: The Spirit of Innovation"
, like a Victorian children's story, comes with a moral: building aircraft like this is difficult and should be left to people with experience. Grant is quite candid about the difficulties that Northrop (as it then was) encountered in the development of the B-2, and at the same time singles out people who are now Northrop Grumman's technical leaders, but who cut their teeth on the B-2 project.
A Tuesday morning panel chaired by Lt Gen Dave Deptula, retired boss of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the USAF and now dean of the ADA's Mitchell Institute, gave some unofficial pointers on the status of the LRS-B program. Lt Gen Mark Shackelford, who retired in 2011 as the USAF's senior acquisition officer, advised delegates that "keeping the program sold will be critical for some time" and that industry would be well advised to continue investing on its own rather than waiting for contract awards -- which, apparently, some are expecting in the first quarter of 2014. (These presumably are study contracts preparatory to a request for proposals.) "Industry has to be prepared to bridge until the government funding starts to flow," Shackelford said.
LRS-B probably will not be like the KC-46 tanker program, where the government laid out a series of firm requirements and made it clear that the least costly bid would win, Shackelford said. However, neither will it follow earlier programs where the customer "picked the most glittery proposal that they thought they could afford". Instead, the government will give credit for over-threshold performance in specific areas -- and those will be related "to the five areas where the government has already invested in risk-reduction". The program will get "a lot of attention from AT&L" (the office of the deputy secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, currently headed by Frank Kendall), according to Shackelford. "You can expect a should-cost environment, where not all the money assigned to the program will be released to the project office." Some funding will be retained to cover unknowns, he said. Also, "incentives will be tied to tangible performance" rather than milestones such as reaching preliminary design review on time.