U.S. to build new radar-evading, long-range bombers: report

08:38, May 23, 2011      

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The U.S. largest defense contractors are expected to vie for an estimated 55-billion-dollar contract to build a fleet of radar-evading, long-range bombers at Air Force Plant 42 in California's Mojave Desert, a newspaper report said on Sunday.

Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. last month to discuss plans to build the bombers that the military hopes to have ready for action by the mid-2020s, The Los Angeles Times said.

The plane would be the first long-range bomber built in the U.S. since the last of the 21 bat-winged B-2 stealth bombers by Northrop Grumman Corp. rolled off the assembly lines at Plant 42 more than a decade ago, according to the report.

The Air Force owns the 5,800-acre (2,349-hectare) industrial park and leases space to aerospace contractors.

Now on the Pentagon wish list is a proposed fleet of 80 to 100 nuclear-capable bombers that could operate with or without a pilot in the cockpit, the report said.

The contract is expected to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California's aerospace industry, according to the report.

Although the contractors declined to discuss the high-level meetings, Northrop and Boeing were quick to express interest in competing for the contract when the acquisition plan is laid out, said the report.

"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," said Randy Belote, a Northrop spokesman.

"Our people and capabilities in California and across the company," he said, "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 spokesman said the company "will compete in the bomber competition," and Lockheed declined to comment.

There are 197 million dollars set aside for developing the bomber in the 2012 fiscal budget, and 3.7 billion dollars are allocated for the program over the next five years, Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman, was quoted as saying.

The program's prospects in Congress also look strong, with the support of prominent congressional Republicans such as Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

"The Defense Department is serious about doing this program," said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. "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 B-2 fleet now numbers 20 -- one crashed in Guam in 2008. The Air Force also has 66 B-1 bombers, built in the 1980s, and 85 B-52 bombers, which were built in the 1960s and modified for use today.

"The Air Force believes it's overdue for an upgrade," Harrison said, adding that funding for the new bomber program could already be underway through the Air Force's 12.6-billion-dollar classified, or "black," budget for weapons research and development.

Source: Xinhua
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