The B-21: A Case Study for Design Reuse and Technology Advancement


Figure 1: DefenseNews image comparing B-2 (top) to B-21 (bottom).

Today, the U.S. Air Force and Northrop Grumman (NG) released concept art of their Long Range Strike Bomber, now known as the B-21. As Defense News and other outlets point out, the B-21 closely resembles another Northrop aircraft, the B-2 Spirit (more commonly referred to as the Stealth Bomber).

Why are media outlets acting surprised by the two aircraft looking “eerily similar”, as DefenseNews proclaims?  It makes perfect sense to me.

After all, Northrop Grumman was awarded the contract because its proposal was deemed less costly and less risky than the proposal from Boeing-Lockheed, so it only makes sense to use an incredibly successful and battle proven platform as a starting point.

Some people speculate NG sometimes keeps the costs in its proposals low by planning to not fully meet requirements and get waivers, whereas the competition bids the cost of meeting or exceeding all requirements. Obviously, there are no facts to back up the speculation, so we’ll assume NG’s numbers are on the level.

With that assumption in place, this program becomes a casestudy for implementing design reuse to lower cost and reduce risk, but still push technology forward – a combination rarely achieved.

Contractors want to reuse designs to keep their non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs down and profits up. Customers want design reuse because proven hardware lowers risk and shortens lead times. Unfortunately, technology stagnates under those conditions, because developing technology requires money and time.

Historically, the defense industry experiences a period of extreme advances in technology, followed by a period where all involved rest on their collective laurels and sell the current generation of hardware. After a decade or so, both sides realize their technology is outdated and a boatload of money and risk is injected to advance the hardware.

We’re a few years away from knowing if NG’s design reuse will successfully keep costs down AND fully meet the program’s requirements. In the meantime, I hope more defense contractors adopt a similar hybrid philosophy.

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