The US Air Force wants to to build a new long-range strike bomber. The B-3, as it is likely to be named, will be a nuclear-capable aircraft designed to penetrate the most sophisticated air defences. The contract [that would be signed by the US Air Force and a weapons company] itself will be worth $50 billion-plus in revenues to the successful bidder, and there will be many billions of dollars more for work on design, support and upgrades. The plan is to build at least 80-100 of the planes at a cost of more than $550m each.
The stakes could not be higher for at least two of the three industrial heavyweights… On one side is a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin; on the other, Northrop Grumman. The result could lead to a shake-out in the defence industry, with one of the competitors having to give up making combat aircraft for good. After the B-3 contract is awarded, the next big deal for combat planes—for a sixth-generation “air-dominance fighter” to replace the F-22 and F-18 Super Hornet—will be more than a decade away. So Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, an aviation-consulting firm, believes it will be hard for the loser to stay in the combat-aircraft business. ..
Usually in a contest of this kind, particularly this close to its end, a clear favourite emerges. Industry-watchers rate this one as still too close to call. That is partly because the degree of secrecy surrounding what is still classified as a “black programme” has remained high. Only the rough outlines of the aircraft’s specification have been revealed. It will be stealthy, subsonic, have a range of around 6,000 miles (9,650km) and be able to carry a big enough payload to destroy many targets during a single sortie. …
The target for the plane to come into operation is the mid-2020s—if possible, even earlier. In part this is because of fast-emerging new threats and in part because the average age of America’s current bomber fleet, consisting of 76 geriatric B-52s, 63 B-1s and 20 B-2s, is 38 years. Keeping such ancient aircraft flying in the face of metal fatigue and corrosion is a constant struggle: just 120 are deemed mission-ready. None of these, except the B-2s, can penetrate first-rate air defences without carrying cruise missiles—and the missiles are of little use against mobile targets.
In the kind of one-sided wars that America and its allies fought in the years after the September 11th 2001 attacks, such deficiencies were not a problem. But during that period China, in particular, has invested heavily in “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. These include thousands of precision-guided missiles of increasing range that could threaten America’s bases in the Western Pacific, and any carriers sailing close enough to shore to launch their short-range tactical aircraft….A new long-range bomber that can penetrate the most advanced air defences is thus seen as vital in preserving America’s unique ability to project power anywhere in the world.
Excerpts from Military aircraft: Battle joined, Economist, May 2, 2015, at 55.