Deep in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by tiers of barbed-wire fence, the nation’s largest defense contractors work in secrecy designing and building the latest military aircraft at Air Force Plant 42. The military’s top weapons buyer quietly visited the Palmdale facility this month to talk with leading aerospace executives about plans to build a fleet of radar-evading bombers that the military hopes to have ready for action by the mid-2020s. The plane would be the first long-range bomber built in the U.S. since the last of the 21 bat-winged B-2 stealth bombers by Northrop Grumman Corp. rolled off the assembly lines at Plant 42 more than a decade ago… Now on the Pentagon wish list is a proposed fleet of 80 to 100 nuclear-capable bombers that could operate with or without a pilot in the cockpit.
Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. These companies are expected to vie for the estimated $55-billion contract that is expected to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California’s aerospace industry…This program may also have a broad effect on the mom-and-pop machine shops and other contractors that could be called upon to make parts for the bomber, said Fred Downey, a national security analyst with the Aerospace Industries Assn., an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.
The B-2 fleet now numbers 20 — one crashed in Guam in 2008. The Air Force also has 66 B-1 bombers, built in the 1980s, and 85 B-52 bombers, which were built in the 1960s and modified for use today. “The Air Force believes it’s overdue for an upgrade,” Harrison said, adding that funding for the new bomber program could already be underway through the Air Force’s $12.6-billion classified, or “black,” budget for weapons research and development. Building bombers under the black budget is not unprecedented. The U.S. government didn’t lift the veil on the B-2 program until a decade after it had begun, revealing one of the largest weapons development efforts since the Manhattan Project produced the atomic bomb in the 1940s.
The Air Force and Northrop went to great lengths to conceal even the smallest detail of the B-2 program. Many suppliers had no idea they were making parts for the bomber. The government created dummy companies that ordered the parts, which were often picked up in the middle of the night by unmarked trucks. Northrop said that at its height, the B-2 program involved about 40,000 employees at aerospace facilities all over the country, including about 15,000 in the Southland.
This time, “the cloak-and-dagger should be even better,” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. “The government is not going to want to advertise a program like this.” Gates said the new bomber would be “using proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity.” Such comments have led many defense analysts to believe the future bomber will look a lot like the stealthy jet-powered drones that are currently flying from Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed.
Northrop has a drone, dubbed X-47B, that is designed to carry laser-guided bombs and be launched from an aircraft carrier. Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, called the “Beast of Kandahar,” was developed at Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works and reportedly was used during the raid at Osama bin Laden’s compound. Both were built at Plant 42. Boeing’s fighter-size Phantom Ray drone is undergoing test flights at Edwards Air Force Base, just north of Palmdale. “All of them look like baby B-2s,” said defense expert Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book about robotic warfare. “They have key stealth design features, which allow them to penetrate enemy air defenses.” Although the program is still far from a certainty, Singer believes that fielding a new bomber is crucial. “It’s a national security concern.”
Excerpt, W.J. Henniganm,Pentagon weapons buyer quietly visits California to discuss bomber planes, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2011