This article first appeared in Aviation Week's Ares Weblog.
DTI reports this month that Northrop Grumman has won a classified Air Force contract to develop a secret bomber prototype. Naturally, nobody's confirming this on the record, but we present strong evidence that such a project is under way.
Ares has reported on this development before. I summarized the evidence pointing to a black-project bomber in October, tracing both the evolution of requirements and the money trail from the demise of the Joint Unmanned Combat Aircraft System in 2006 to the USAF's bomber project.
Later in the month, I reported on Northrop Grumman CEO Ron Sugar's public enthusiasm for classified programs, including the fact that he directly tied the company's acquisition of Scaled Composites to advanced aircraft programs. In February I pointed out the lack of visible funding for the Next Generation Bomber in 2008-2010.
More specifically, too, Sugar identified restricted programs as the company's top new business opportunity for 2008. That comment alone indicated the size of the business that the company was looking at, because - in the white world - the company was competing for BAMS, itself a billion-dollar contract.
As a consequence, those of us who look at these things carefully had our ears pricked up for any indications of progress on this front, and were rewarded on April 26 when Northrop Grumman issued its first-quarter financial results. Discreetly hidden on Schedule 5: "The company was awarded approximately $2.6 billion for restricted programs during this period." The results also showed that the only Northrop Grumman sector showing an increase in backlog on that scale, from March 31 2007 to March 31 2008, was Integrated Systems, the aircraft segment. So it is there in black and white that Northrop Grumman got more than $2 billion for a secret aircraft program or programs in the first quarter.
Now, consider the late-January announcement from Boeing and Lockheed Martin that they were teaming on NGB. I pointed out on Ares at the time that (contrary to what some analysts said) this looked like a defensive move. I'd say that we now have a pretty good idea about what triggered it.
Covering black programs is a combination of reporting and intelligence, and the "mosaic" is a vital concept: like an archaeologist rebuilding a mosaic, you put the pieces together in a pattern that makes sense. In this case, all the indicators (funds, programs, hints dropped by Pentagon officials) point to the NGB having evolved from J-UCAS, which fragmented in late 2005 because the USAF saw it as a bigger aircraft than the Navy.
If that's the case, there are many reasons (read the DTI story) to expect that the airplane's going to look something like a big X-47B.
-- Bill Sweetman with Aviation Week's Ares Weblog