Pratt & Whitney could be big winner – or loser – in new bomber contract

Washington – Pratt & Whitney could be a big winner, or a big loser, in the Pentagon’s decision to award a multi-billion contract to Northrop Grumman to manufacture the nation’s next-generation U.S. warplane, the Long-Range Strike Bomber.

The Air Force says information about subcontractors, including the engine maker, involved in the bomber program must be kept secret for national security reasons.

Northrop Grumman won the contract over a partnership between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

At a press conference late Tuesday to announce the awarding of the contract, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s chief of acquisition, said competition for all components of the aircraft – including the engine – was already completed as part of Northrop Grumman’s proposal.

“It’s a full-up aircraft that we received,” Bunch said.

Pratt & Whitney and General Electric are considered possible subcontractors for the engine.

But no one is saying whose engine will power the new bomber, whose design, capabilities and specifications are shrouded in mystery.

“We won’t go into any details relative to specific components or subcontractors due to classification and enhanced security,” Bunch said.

A 2012 defense authorization bill required bidders for the bomber contract to hold their own competitions for the engine, an Air Force spokesman said Wednesday.

Pratt & Whitney, which makes the F135 engine used to power the F-35 joint strike fighter, also declined to say whether its engine will be on the bomber.

Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said the company “congratulates Northrop Grumman for their selection on this very important program” but declined “to comment on any other questions regarding the Long Range Strike Bomber program.”

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman spokesman Randy Belote said “due to the classification of the program we are referring all questions to the Air Force.”

But Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said Pratt & Whitney’s manufacture of the engines on the F-22 and F-35 gave it an edge in the competition for the bomber’s engine.

“The maker of the bomber engine has never been publicly disclosed, but Pratt & Whitney is the most likely supplier,” Thompson said.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called the long-range bomber, a program that is expected to cost at least $60 billion for 100 warplanes, a strategic investment in the next 50 years that “represents our aggressive commitment to a strong and balanced force.”

“It demonstrates our commitment to our allies and our determination to potential adversaries, making it crystal clear that the United States will continue to retain the ability to project power throughout the globe long into the future,” Carter said.

The LRS-B will be a “a dual-capable bomber,” carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons.

In announcing the winner of the contract, the Pentagon made a strong pitch for its need.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said the “threat environment” the United States faces today has evolved because of advances in air defense systems and surface-to-air missiles, “which effectively push our older bombers, the B-52 and the B-1, with an age of 50-plus years and 27-plus years respectively, farther and farther away from the fight.”

“(The Long-Range Strike Bomber) will also give us the flexibility and the capability to launch from the continental United States air strikes that would be able to strike any location in the world,” she said.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin indicated they may jointly challenge the award.

“We will have further discussions with our customer before determining our next steps,” said a joint statement from the companies. “We are interested in knowing how the competition was scored in terms of price and risk, as we believe that the combination of Boeing and Lockheed Martin offers unparalleled experience, capability and resources for this critically important recapitalization program.”

James appeared to try to head off a challenge by saying “award of this contract followed a deliberate and disciplined process.”

“Our team of professionals carefully considered the offers, proposals in accordance with the source selection criteria,” she said. “The entire process was carried out with a high level of transparency with our industry partners, and was scrutinized via DoD peer reviews. We believe that our decision represents the best value for our nation.”

While the Air Force hopes to buy 100 of the new bombers at cost of about $564 million each, the Northrop Grumman contract awarded Tuesday is for an initial  21 planes, plus $23.5 billion in engineering and development costs.

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