July 10 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Air Force said today it has asked contractors for proposals on a new long-range strike bomber, setting up a competition between Northrop Grumman Corp. and a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture.
The Air Force has said it may build as many as 100 of the bombers, at a cost that may top $55 billion, to replace the aging B-2 stealth bomber built by Northrop. The service said in an e-mailed statement that it expected to choose the bomber’s developer “in the spring 2015 timeframe.”
Calling the bomber “a top modernization priority,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James said in the statement, “It will be an adaptable and highly capable system based upon mature technology.”
The Air Force has described the bomber as crucial to its ability to reach far-flung, heavily defended targets around the world. When research and development costs are included, the price per plane may rise from $550 million to $810 million, according to calculations by three defense analysts cited by Bloomberg News.
The Air Force’s five-year plan released in March proposed spending $11.8 billion to develop the new plane.
The cost will draw close scrutiny in an era of declining defense spending, as the Pentagon faces the budget-cutting process called sequestration. The Air Force’s track record also is being questioned after soaring costs for the B-2 and Lockheed’s F-35 fighter jet, the most expensive U.S. weapons system, which is now being built.
The competing contractors for the bomber both issued statements arguing that they had the best credentials to win the contract.
“Northrop Grumman’s design, production and sustainment of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the bomber most recently produced for the U.S. Air Force, positions the company well for” the long-range bomber program, Randy Belote, a spokesman for the Falls Church, Virginia-based contractor, said in an e-mailed statement.
The team formed by Chicago-based Boeing and Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed issued a statement saying: “We have been part of the bomber community for more than 80 years, going back to the earliest days of bomber development. We have the breadth and depth of proven technologies and talent, plus the infrastructure and scale that matches the importance of this mission.”
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