The Defense Department has been holding discreet talks with major military contractors on plans to develop a new generation of long-range nuclear bombers, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday.
The Pentagon would like to see the new fleet of nuclear-capable bombers in place no later than the middle of the next decade. It would number between 80 to 100 aircraft that could be flown remotely or by a human pilot.
The youngest long-range bombers in the current U.S. nuclear arsenal are more than 10 years old.
Ashton Carter, the Defense Department's head of acquisition, has spoken individually with officials from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, department spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. The three defense contractors are expected to battle for 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.
Proposals to pay for the next generation of long-range strike aircraft are being developed amid a cost-slashing mood in Washington. Although he has instructed the Pentagon to rein in expenses, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has on several occasions called for a new fleet 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 told journalists in 2010.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck 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 [capability] 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 Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman.
"The Defense Department is serious about doing this program," said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "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 currently has 20 B-2 bombers, 66 B-1 bombers manufactured in the 1980s, and 85 B-52 bombers that date to the 1960s and have been refurbished.
"The Air Force believes it's overdue for an upgrade," said Harrison, who noted that the service could already be paying for the aircraft's development through its secret $12.6 billion "black" budget for the creation of new weapons.
Gates has said that the bomber would employ "proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity."
Such statements have led numerous military observers to speculate that the next-generation aircraft would have physical similarities to the radar-evading, remote-controlled aircraft that are already in use.