A top secret desert assembly plant starts ramping up to build Northrop’s B-21 bomber

Artist rendering of Air Force’s new B-21 bomber.

Artist rendering of Air Force’s new B-21 bomber. (Northrop Gruman)


A once-empty parking lot at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s top secret aircraft plant in Palmdale is now jammed with cars that pour in during the predawn hours.

More than a thousand new employees are working for the time being in rows of temporary trailers, a dozen tan-colored tents and a vast assembly hangar at the desert site near the edge of urban Los Angeles County.

It is here that Northrop is building the Air Force’s new B-21 bomber, a stealthy bat-winged jet that is being designed to slip behind any adversary’s air defense system and deliver devastating airstrikes for decades to come. The Pentagon is aiming to buy 100 of the bombers by the mid-2030s for at least $80 billion, though the exact amount is classified.

Northrop won the bomber contract in 2015, but the pace of activity is ramping up sharply under an Air Force budget that has reached $2 billion for this fiscal year.

Construction crews are getting ready to add 1 million square feet to the plant, a 50% increase over what is already a huge facility that is protected by razor wire-topped fences, electronic sensors and military air space surveillance, according to interviews and government documents.

The project marks a sharp turnaround in the fortunes of the Southern California aerospace industry, which has been atrophying since the end of the Cold War. It was widely assumed that the region would never again be home to a large aircraft manufacturing program and now it has one of the largest in modern history. The program is breathing new life into an industry that once defined the Southern California economy.

The bomber — dubbed the “Raider” — is expected to become Northrop’s largest cash cow, which could run for two decades if it does not encounter technical or political setbacks. But it will be competing with other nuclear and nonnuclear modernization programs for limited defense funds — a cutthroat political contest.

The Palmdale factory is part of the Air Force’s massive Plant 42 operation, where some of the nation’s most secret warplanes have been built, including Northrop’s flying wing B-2 bomber.

The B-21 program is not just secret but “special access,” setting a much higher bar on who can get a clearance and how data are stored, among much else. An executive conference room at the plant is actually a high security windowless vault, where a massive conference table is surrounded by three dozen leather chairs and the walls are adorned with large photographs of the company’s long line of weapons. No cellphones are allowed in the room.

Heavy bombers, particularly those capable of carrying nuclear weapons, have been among the most controversial military projects in U.S. history. When the B-1 bomber was rolled out, pacifists attempted to throw themselves under its wheels. The Northrop B-2 stealth bomber gave Congress sticker shock with its $1-billion-per-plane manufacturing cost.

By contrast, the B-21 so far is slamming through the political system with few obstacles with a projected cost of $550 million per plane, translating to production costs alone of $55 billion, according to staff at the House Armed Services Committee. The dollar amount for research and development is highly classified, Under Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan said in an in interview.

The service is committed to releasing that cost information as soon as possible, Donovan said, “but we have to balance that with protecting the capabilities of our aircraft against potential adversaries.”

Even more highly classified are the technical details of the future bomber.

A crude drawing of the plane released by the Air Force seems to resemble the company’s B-2 bomber, but Donovan and others say the new plane is not a derivative but a “clean sheet” design. It is supposed to carry nuclear weapons, though the Air Force does not plan to certify it for such missions until two years after it first becomes operational, a cost-saving decision that the House Armed Services Committee criticized in a 2013 report.

Evading more capable future radar systems is a singular requirement. When the B-2 was built, some experts claimed it looked no bigger than a hummingbird on a radar screen. The B-21 would have to be even stealthier. The preliminary design of the bomber’s stealth characteristics was “investigated in detail against current and anticipated threats,” according to a Congressional Research Service report released in June.

The plane will be operated either by an onboard crew or autonomously, the report said. Without a crew, the bomber could linger much longer over targets, requiring fewer sorties and holding an enemy hostage much longer. Unlike the B-2, it is planned as part of a “family of systems,” implying that it would fly with other aircraft or weapons systems, though government officials declined to say anything about it.

The B-21 will benefit from much more sophisticated, faster and cheaper computer systems, as well as software, said Don Hicks, who was Northrop’s senior vice president for research during the B-2 era and later served as the Pentagon’s research and engineering chief. He said Northrop developed crucial technology in its X-47B drone, an experimental jet that made history in 2013 with the first autonomous landing on an aircraft carrier.

“The B-21 is much better than the B-2,” Hicks said. “It has a lot of capability built into it that the B-2 doesn’t have.”

Full article: A top secret desert assembly plant starts ramping up to build Northrop’s B-21 bomber (LA Times)

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