Pentagon Wants Unmanned Stealth Bomber to Replace B-2

Pentagon weapons buyer Ashton Carter met with Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed executives at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale last week to discuss the military’s plans to build a fleet of radar-evading, long-range bombers that the military hopes to have ready for action by the mid-2020s.

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. The Air Force owns the 5,800-acre 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.

Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. These companies are expected to vie for the estimated $55-billion contract that is expected to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California’s aerospace industry.

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. “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 is $197 million set aside for developing the bomber in the 2012 fiscal budget, and $3.7 billion is allocated for the programme over the next five years, said Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman.

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 programme could already be underway through the Air Force’s $12.6-billion classified, or “black,” budget for weapons research and development.

Building bombers under the black budget is not unprecedented. The U.S. government didn’t lift the veil on the B-2 programme until a decade after it had begun, revealing one of the largest weapons development efforts since the Manhattan Project produced the atomic bomb in the 1940s.

Many defence analysts to believe the future bomber will look a lot like the stealthy jet-powered drones that are currently flying from Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed. Northrop has the X-47B that is designed to carry laser-guided bombs and be launched from an aircraft carrier. Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel, called the “Beast of Kandahar,” was developed at Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works and reportedly was used during the raid at Osama bin Laden’s compound. Both were built at Plant 42. Boeing’s fighter-size Phantom Ray is undergoing test flights at Edwards Air Force Base, just north of Palmdale.

“All of them look like baby B-2s,” said defence expert Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book about robotic warfare. “They have key stealth design features, which allow them to penetrate enemy air defences.”

Source: LA Times

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