Pentagon Moves on New Long-Range Bomber

(May. 23) -A U.S. B-2 strategic bomber. The Pentagon has quietly joined talks with defense contractors on arrangements to build a fleet of next-generation, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, according to a news report published on Sunday (U.S. Air Force photo).
(May. 23) -A U.S. B-2 strategic bomber. The Pentagon has quietly joined talks with defense contractors on arrangements to build a fleet of next-generation, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, according to a news report published on Sunday (U.S. Air Force photo).

The U.S. Defense Department has discreetly been discussing with major military contractors plans to develop a new generation of long-range nuclear bomber aircraft, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday (see GSN, Nov. 5, 2010).

The Pentagon would like to see the new fleet of nuclear-capable bombers in place no later than the middle of the next decade. The sought-after fleet would number between 80 to 100 aircraft that could be flown remotely or by a human pilot.

Currently, the youngest long-range bombers in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are more than 10 years old.

Defense Department acquisition head Ashton Carter has spoken individually with officials from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, department spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. The three defense contractors are anticipated to compete to win the $55 billion bomber order.

"Northrop Grumman employees in California designed, produced and currently maintain the nation's newest bomber in the U.S. Air Force fleet, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber," Northrop spokesman Randy Belote said. "Our people and capabilities ... stand ready to assist the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force in meeting the nation's future requirements for the long-range-strike mission."

A Boeing representative said the aerospace giant "will compete in the bomber competition," while Lockheed Martin declined a request for comment.

Plans to fund a new generation of long-range strike aircraft are developing amid a cost-slashing mood in Washington, where lawmakers are likely to closely study the anticipated project. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while calling for the Pentagon to rein in expenses, has on several occasions called for a new generation of nuclear-ready aircraft.

"It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service," Gates said to journalists in 2010.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) favors the bomber initiative.

"The Air Force and the Defense Department have made clear that replacements are needed for America's aging bomber fleet and that long-range strike should be a priority," McKeon staffer John Noonan said. "The chairman concurs with their assessment."

The Obama administration's fiscal 2012 budget request includes $197 million to support development operations for the new system. A total of $3.7 billion is to be spent over the next half decade, according to Air Force spokesman Maj. Chad Steffey.

"The Defense Department is serious about doing this program," Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments defense analyst Todd Harrison said. "The last time they tried to upgrade their bomber force, they bought 21 B-2s. That's not nearly enough to modernize the fleet."

The Air Force today has only 20 B-2 bombers as well as 66 B-1 bombers manufactured in the 1980s and 85 B-52 bombers that date back to the 1960s and have been refurbished.

"The Air Force believes it's overdue for an upgrade," Harrison said, asserting the service could already quietly be paying for the aircraft's development through its secret $12.6 billion "black" budget for the creation of new weapons.

Gates has stated the new aircraft would employ "proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity."

Statements such as these have led numerous military observers to speculate the next-generation aircraft would have physical similarities to the radar-evading, remotely-piloted aircraft that are already in use (W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times, May 22).

May 23, 2011
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The U.S. Defense Department has discreetly been discussing with major military contractors plans to develop a new generation of long-range nuclear bomber aircraft, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday (see GSN, Nov. 5, 2010).