In the middle of President Ronald Reagan’s massive military buildup of the 1980s, there wew a few very interesting concepts being discussed. One of the most exotic was the hypersonic aircraft. In the mid 1980s, the new Republican Administration began exploring the option of developing such a fantastic air platform. Reagan and his team of scientific advisers was pushing hard the idea of an airplane capable of achieving speeds of Mach 12. The President himself promoted the idea in a televised news conference. They way he described the concept, the new aircraft, a renewed symbol of America’s technological prowess, would have taken off from a regular designed runway, climb above the stratosphere, much like any ICBM does, then it would proceed to move into sub-orbit, before commencing its gradual descend like a any conventional airliner. The administration even got a name for this highly futuristic plane, “The Orient Express”. The name was in reference to the aircraft’s expected ability to reach Tokyo in just two hours. The whole concept was doomed to failure from the very beginning. The dynamics to make such an aircraft fly at that speed were not available at that time. Lockheed’s vaunted SR-71 Blackbird, for example, was able to flight at “only” at Mach 3.2 and that was achieved only after expending enormous amounts of effort and funds. At Mach 12, the Express’ surface would have come apart from heat friction interaction no matter what the skin composition would have been. A titanium airframe, which was the strongest material known at the time, could receive up to 2,500 degrees of heat, after which it would began to tear up. In the SR-71, the pilot wore a special space suit that protected him from the excruciating heat. If the cabin’s air conditioner system failed, he would most likely die from extreme heat exposure. Incredible, ridiculous, not even feasible, were some of the words used by many at Lockheed’s secret Skunk Works facility in California to describe the whole idea. But the dream of building such radical aircraft did not die then. In fact, the idea still passes around in Congress. The “Express” would had been a join effort between NASA and the Pentagon. But long before any funds were made available for the feasibility study, the Administration began to realize that the Orient Express, instead of being one sole unit, was in reality two separate platforms, a rocket and an aircraft, joined together mush like NASA’s space shuttle and that the science to make it a reality was not there yet. What was available was the technology to make America’s next generation bomber.
In the spring of 1978, a group of engineers, lead by the charismatic Ben Rich, head of Lockheed’s secret Skunk Works complex; made a pitch at the Pentagon for a new heavy bomber aircraft. Boosting Lockheed’s recently developed F-117 stealth fighter as its introduction card, Rich forceful promoted his idea for America’s next generation bomber. The meeting was presided over by Gene Fubini, director of the Defense Science Board and Under Secretary for Defense and one of the early proponents of stealth technology, William Perry. Both Perry and Fubini were distraught over the current state of Rockwell’s B-1 program. The B-1 was conceived as a replacement for the AF B-52 plane, but massive cost overruns and poor testing put Rockwell’s bomber program in serious peril. Nevertheless, the Pentagon and Strategic Air Command (SAC) were in dire need of a replacement for their vaunted, but aging, B-52 bomber. The poor results showed by the B-1 prompted SAC to look at another option. There were discussions inside the Air Force of upgrading General Dynamics’ F-111 swing wing tactical fighter/bomber. The idea had the partial endorsement of SAC’s top commander, AF General Richard Ellis who favored quantity over size. He believed that a more numerous fleet of bombers would have cost less than a somewhat smaller fleet of much larger planes. “Airplanes by the pound”, as the motto went on those days. It was not a perfect solution, but, AF generals were afraid of being stuck behind an aging fleet of B-52s and a new, problem-prone force of B-1s. This gave Rich and his team the opening they craved for, “if you guys are eager for a small bomber fleet, look no further than our basic design for the stealth fighter. All we got to do is make it larger and we have an airplane that could carry the payload of the F-111, but with a radar cross section at least ten orders of the magnitude better”. Those words resonated on both Perry and Fubini who were well informed of the F-117’s technological prowess. Perry, who had just signed a feasibility study for the possible development of a naval stealth vessel, was more receptive to the idea than the sometimes more rigid Fubini. Nevertheless, Perry was not ready to grant one company the sole monopoly on stealth.
But the Air Force had to deal with the problematic B-1 project before it could mount another huge and costly bomber program. Canceling such a vast program as the B-1, was and still is a potential political mess. The cancellation of the B-1, which was designed to penetrate a heavily saturated Soviet air defense system and proceed to deliver its nuclear payload flying near or on the deck; was bound to cost millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. But there was a powerful argument to be made for canceling the whole program: survivability. A year before, the AF had conducted an study looking into the B-1’s chances of surviving a deep penetration mission against heavily defended Soviet airspace, what the study revealed shocked most of the AF’s top brass. Sixty percent of the attacking B-1 force would be shot down before it could reach its operational target. That loss rate was unacceptable. Rich and his team argued that in an study performed that same year by an independent defense think tank, a bomber utilizing the latest in stealth technology would acquire a survivability ratio of almost eighty percent. A dramatic improvement. A few days after the Washington meeting, Rich received a call on Lockheed’s secure line. It was Major General William Campbell, head of Future Planning for SAC who said “(General) Ellis would be very receptive to a stealth bomber. I want to send out to the Skunk Works a couple of our most senior bomber pilots to sit down with you and your people and work up for Ellis’ approval the requirements for a deep penetration stealth attack bomber” The seeds of the “Spirits” were laid, although not in the direction Rich would want it.
Rich and his team, which now consisted of several SAC bomber pilots and colonels, worked diligently for almost three months developing the outlines of their program. “Peggy”, as the Skunks Works’ early stealth bomber research program was referred to (Peggy was the name of General Ellis’ wife), called for a medium sized bomber capable of having an operational range of 3600 nautical miles unrefuelled with a 10000 pound payload capacity. The proposal was quickly approved and Lockheed received a two year, fully funded, grant for research experimentation. Lockheed appeared to had been well on its way to acquiring the military’s biggest one program contract since the Manhattan Project. They had good reason to believe so. William Perry was convinced that only a stealth platform could give the United States the ability to penetrate and suppress any installation deep inside the USSR. It would take the Soviets decades to achieve the necessary technological breakthroughs to counter the US stealth technology, Perry thought. But the US presidential election changed it all. On November 1980, Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in a landslide victory. The problem Rich and Lockheed now faced was the expected resignations of most the current mid to top level civilian managerial pool at the Defense Department. It also meant that Perry, a lifelong Democrat and one of stealth’s most passionate supporters, would step down from his powerful post. Perry was the true force behind the stealth revolution. Pushing forward stealth programs even at the expenses of other, more conventional ones. Stealth and its early development was, and still is, his legacy.
Lockheed’s closest competitor for the new bomber was the Northrop Corporation. In the early 1970s, Northrop had lost a close competition with Lockheed to develop the US’s first stealth platform and were primed for a rematch. Behind Northrop’s effort was the brilliant, albeit unconventional, John Cashen who wanted nothing less than to “beat” Rich and his team for the new AF contract. In the 1970s, the US air and space industry was basically a monopoly of just four big companies and a vast network of subcontractors. The most powerful company at the time was McDonnell-Douglas which build thousand of F-15 fighters for the AF, plus the newest Navy fighter bomber, the F-18. McDonnell was followed by the massive General Dynamics Corporation which made everything from the F-16, to tanks, missile systems and even submarines. Lockheed was third with a solid experience of developing cargo and spy planes as well as the mainstay of the US ICBM force at the time, the Polaris Ballistic Missile. Northrop and Rockwell, which developed the B-1, followed.
Northrop was Lockheed’s main competition for the bomber program. There were several factors that pointed to Lockheed winning the coveted contract. First, Northrop had not developed the type of advanced research facility that Lockheed had with its Skunk Works. Second, the company have expended valuable resources developing the F-20 light weight fighter. After a cost overrun of more than $ 100 million, the F-20 fighter, which was a non-provocative air platform, meaning the the plane was advanced enough to be sold to Americas’ Allies but it was vulnerable (designed as) to the most sophisticated US anti aircraft measures. The idea behind the non-provocative concept was that US aerospace companies could sell off the shelf technologies to US Allies without compromising America’s ability to respond if they turn hostile. Northrop began to court the government of Taiwan which was desperately trying to upgrade their air defense assets. But strong Chinese opposition to the sale managed to kill the entire program, placing the company in a compromising financial position. This was perhaps the most important thing going for Northrop in the bidding process. If the company could not land the new bomber contract, it would join Rockwell, which was already struggling with the cancellation of the B-1; on the fringe of the US aerospace industry. Meanwhile, Lockheed’s team began planning for the expected order. They moved ahead with plans to enlarge their secret facility at Burbank and even had a tentative agreement with Rockwell to utilize their huge facility at Palmdale, plus, many of Rockwell’s skilled workers would be participating on the final assembly. At the other side, Northrop entered into a limited partnership with Boeing. The stage was set.
Everything seemed to be on track for Lockheed’s entrant to win out, everything, that is, except politics. After William Perry left DOD, the whole stealth bomber program was relocated from the Pentagon to Wright Field AF Base. Wright was under the command of General Al Slay, head of the AF System Command. As with Perry, Slay was a true believer in stealth, but, unlike Perry, the influential General wanted big, heavy bombers instead of the medium size type Lockheed had been pitching. Immediately, Slay authorized funds from one of the AF’s black accounts. The new bomber’s fund was assigned the name of Aurora by Colonel Buz Carpenter, a young and upcoming officer. Somehow the name of the fund was leaked to the press, prompting one of the world’s most enduring myths. Thus the competition began at earnest. Both conglomerates centered their efforts around Jack Northrop’s 1930s flying wing design. Both engineering team succeed in making the flying wing concept more feasible than was the case almost forty years early, the wing’s boomerang plan-form afforded the lowest radar return echo, plus it gave the platform an unusually favorable lift to drag ratio paving the way for reduced fuel consumption and a longer operational range. As each company began to develop a three quarter scale mock up, it was increasingly obvious which direction each one would take. Lockheed’s design was more along the lines of a medium-sized platform, while Northrop’s was more of a true heavy-bomber type. Here is where another significant factor was staked against Lockheed’s entry. Because the company’s design was relative small, the wing needed to be fitted with a small tail structure in order to add stability to the bombing platform. Northrop’s concept on the other hard was large enough to be able to operate with just its own surface control systems. This small difference gave Northrop’s design a better lift/drag ratio compared with Lockheed’s entry.
On May 1st 1981, the designs of both, Northrop and Lockheed were pitted against one another in an AF radar detection range. Data relating to the test is still classified, but rumor has it that Lockheed’s design beat Northrop’s entry on nearly all frequency tests, nevertheless, the following October, Ben Rich received a formal notification from the AF awarding the advance heavy bomber contract to Northrop on technical merit. Rich did not take the news well. Neither did his superior, Lockheed’s CEO Roy Anderson. Both men went to visit the newly appointed AF Secretary, Verne Orr, to protest the matter. A visibly angry Orr told both men that “not only was Northrop better than you, they were much better than you”, prompting Anderson to say “Well Mr. Secretary, time will tell”. It was later revealed to Anderson that the selection of Northrop’s design was attributed to size. A much bigger aircraft with a larger payload capacity provided a better bargain for the AF. Although the Northrop’s design registered a “bigger” radar signature than its counterpart, it would require fewer attack sorties because it carry a larger payload. Less sorties counterbalanced the real stealth advantages enjoyed by Lockheed’s design.
– Raul Colon
Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Concept Aircraft: Prototypes, X-Planes, and Experimental Aircraft, Editor Jim Winchester, Thunder Bay Press 2005
The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001
Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide, Gunter Endres and Mike Gething, HarperCollins, 2002