The Air Force issued a request for an “Advanced Technology Bomber” in September 1980, formalizing the ASPA studies into a program to develop an operational aircraft, Northrop’s design was looking much more attractive, and company officials felt they had a shot at winning the contract. Lockheed was partnering with Raytheon on their ATB proposal, and so Northrop approached Boeing to sign up as a partner. Northrop’s chairman, Tom Jones, had a meeting with his counterpart at Boeing, Thornton Wilson. Wilson, to his embarrassment, was almost completely ignorant of the ATB program, but Jones filled him in, and Wilson agreed to join immediately. Witnesses claim that Wilson then turned to one of his people and said: “Don’t ever let me be caught in this position again!”

The Northrop concept, codenamed SENIOR ICE, was judged superior to the Lockheed SENIOR PEG proposal, and Northrop won the ATB contract in October 1981. The contract covered delivery of two static-test airframes, one flying prototype, and five evaluation machines. While the Carter Administration had pushed stealth, there had been some ambivalence about production, but the new, hawkish Reagan Administration wanted to go full speed ahead on the ATB. The initial plan envisioned production of 127 ATBs, in addition to the five evaluation machines, which would be brought up to operational specification.

The Pentagon wanted to keep the contract a secret, but Tom Jones pointed out that Northrop had to publicly declare large company contracts in order to be in compliance with securities laws. The government, caught by their own regulations, issued the shortest and least informative statement possible about the contract. It would be the last public mention of the program until 1988.