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Northrop to Redesign Parts of B-2 Stealth Bomber

It used to be that warships would remain in service for thirty years with incremental modifications and improvements as new radars, weapons and electronic systems were invented and fitted to the vessel. Now military aircraft have the same service life pattern. The U.S. utilized its last class of battleships for fifty years and have been doing the same with their venerable fleet of Boeing (BA) B-52 bombers originally intended to carry large, thermonuclear bombs to the Soviet Union and now conducting precision attacks with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) bombs in Afghanistan.

The B-2 stealth bomber is the latest strategic attack aircraft in the U.S. inventory. It was designed and produced by Northrop Grumman (NOC) in the Eighties and Nineties. 21 were manufactured and currently 20 remain in use after one crashed a few years ago on Guam. The U.S. Air Force and Congress have been funding studies and doing basic development work on what will ultimately be a new bomber to come into service in the next few decades but right now the B-2 supplements the B-52 as well as the B-1 Lancer made in the Seventies.

Since aircraft remain in service for so long like ships it is possible to do incremental improvements and upgrades. In this vein Northrop was recently awarded a contract to redesign and install a new aft deck for the B-2. The aft deck is made out of metal and protects the stealthy, composite material from the heat of the engines. The contract has an initial value of just over $100 million.

The purpose of the redesign is most likely to reduce maintenance, improve readiness and most likely the performance of that part of the aircraft. The B-2, as well as the F-22 and the F-35 when it enters service, requires quite a bit of maintenance to keep the stealthy material whole and working. Any improvements to the design and maintenance of the aircraft will make the B-2 have a higher operational rate and ability to support the war.

One of the advantages that the prime contractor for a system like the B-2 has is that over the thirty plus service life of the aircraft there will be many contracts like this. The prime should win the bulk of them unless the service has bought the technical data rights and wants to use a different company or rely on their own depots. In the last twenty years of defense contracting that has been the exception and not the rule. Data rights are expensive and the U.S. has also reduced significantly its own depot capability as attempts to reduce spending and be more efficient. These policies favor the original manufacturer and help them maintain a steady stream of revenue.

Photo from Armchair Aviator’s Flickr photostream.

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