Either Northrop Grumman or Boeing-Lockheed will win the contract for America's next bomber, known as the Long Range Strike-Bomber. Whoever takes the prize will likely be the last bomber builder for the better part of a century and will almost surely be the last builder of a manned bomber ever.
The stakes are high, and the marketing has become very hot. The glitzy ad below, which will probably run during the Super Bowl, might give us a first and startling look at the shape of their creation:
Northrop Grumman has a clear leg up over its competition, having built the B-2 Spirit as well as the X-47B flying with the Navy. In the dark world the legendary aerospace firm has also been widely known to have built a next generation bomber demonstrator during the late 2000s, as well as a high altitude, long endurance stealth drone. Still, the pairing of Lockheed and Boeing as a team results in a consortium with deep pockets and plenty of capabilities to roll into their own program, and they probably have a good idea as to what Northrop Grumman is bringing to the table based on recent designs.
The Boeing-Lockheed design is rumored to be based on an elegant flying wing planform similar to the P175 Polecat unmanned demonstrator and other concepts dating back to the late 1980s. Meanwhile, the Northrop Grumman entrant is likely to be based on their more stout 'Cranked Kite' planform, very similar to the the X-47B's shape. Based on the video above, that rumor looks absolutely correct. In fact, this concept art below does not look far from what is shown in the commercial, although that craft looks like a tighter package, with closer set intakes and a more bulbous nose.
There is a very good chance that the prototypes from each team are flying now, with some eyebrow raising encounters over America's heartland occurring last Spring. Additionally, a major new hangar facility is being raised Area 51 and Edwards AFB is clearing out its massive South Base super hangar and the surrounding ramp space for 'a major project coming out of the black.' Will this be a flyoff of LRS-B demonstrators, or will they be pre-production aircraft from a winner that has already been secretly selected?
Although exact requirements for the LRS-B are highly classified, it is well known that this new bomber would pack a series of somewhat mature, but still quite advance technologies in a very cutting edge airframe design in an attempt to cut risk and cost. The payload requirements will be less than the B-2 Spirit, said to be somewhere in the realm of 3/5ths of the big batwing bomber's heavy lifting ability, resulting in a smaller flying machine overall.
Really, these new aircraft, although called bombers, will be much more than that, as they will act just as much as communications nodes, intelligence collection and electronic attack assets as attack platforms. Also, the idea is that these new multi-role, long-range flying wings could be optionally manned in some point in their life cycle.
There is much talk that the LRS-B's basic requirements, and possibly the test articles themselves, will be unveiled sometime late next fall, which would be the biggest classified aircraft disclosure since the RQ-170 Sentinel. Regardless of knowing the exact dates of when America's new centerpiece of its air combat abilities will 'come out of the black,' I can assure you that the time is coming soon. Once the manufacturers start giving their new designs the 'white sheet' marketing treatment you can assume that the competition has hit a fevered pitch and disclosure is close at hand.
As far as what lies ahead, meeting stealth, payload and multi-role capabilities requirements will not be the biggest challenge for the LRS-B program going forward regardless of who wins the contract. Keeping the cost down to a comparatively paltry $550m per airframe will.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com