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MarketWatch June 29, 2006

U.S. Air Force to step up new bomber search in next budget

By Rebecca Christie

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- The U.S. Air Force's search for a new bomber will step up in coming months, in hopes of meeting the 2018 goal set by a defense strategy report.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told Dow Jones Newswires that the Pentagon needs to "get on with the getting on" of a new bomber program. Unless the service starts soon, it won't get its new plane by even 2020, he said in a recent interview.

So far, the project is in the conceptual stage. But Wynne predicted imminent action as the 2008 budget cycle ramps up this summer.

"By about this budget cycle we should have a determination. You're going to see the old five-year laydown," Wynne said, referring to the Pentagon's practice of offering a five-year plan with each new budget request.

Stealth, range and firepower all will be important elements of the new project. The Air Force also wants a bomber with persistence - that is, the ability to stay airborne and on call for very long periods.

Wynne said the project probably will look at ways to use existing technology, rather than cutting-edge concepts that could take decades to develop. An unmanned bomber holds great promise for persistence, but a pilot may be needed in a dogfight or on a nuclear bombing run.

"I'd love to have the capability of essentially pushing out a near sky hook that can be tanked by itself and stay there. On the other hand, there are some times that a man in the loop is a really good thing," Wynne said.

Boeing Co. (BA) and Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) both say they already have started work on the concept. Analysts say the Air Force may have a stockpile of classified research, or "black" projects, to draw on, or it could revive a plan to build a bomber version of Lockheed Martin's F-22 stealth fighter.

Teal Group aircraft expert Richard Aboulafia said the Air Force needs some kind of a running start to have any chance at meeting the 2018 goal. The Defense Department's latest Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized that date, overriding previous plans to aim for a new bomber around 2025.

"Space alien technology is a wonderful thing. I'm glad area 51 is proving useful," Aboulafia said, when asked about near-term bomber prospects. "Unless they have something in the black world, it's going to be a lot longer than 2018."

Major aircraft development programs have a history of running over budget and behind schedule. They also are expensive. Aboulafia said a new bomber would probably cost $50 billion just to develop.

Wynne said the Air Force is examining how much money it can set aside for the bomber project. Budget limits already have forced the service to make deep cuts in its planned aircraft purchases, and the service is in the process of shrinking its personnel by 57,000 troops, or about 40,000 full-time equivalents, to free funds for new weapons.

The long-range strike bomber project will be separate from other studies on so-called prompt global strike, which usually refers to ballistic missile technology, the Air Force said. Wynne said the new bomber won't go through space en route to its targets.

"It probably is not going to be exoatmospheric, coming down then slowing down. We haven't got that - don't want to leap out there," Wynne said.

Wynne said he didn't know yet whether the new plane would need the leverage of an existing production line, like the F-22 fighter program. "I'd love to get a couple of smart people looking at it, come back with some ideas," he said.

"If one of their ideas is coming off a hot production line, great. If one of their ideas is coming off some brand new thing," that would be fine too, he said.

Air Force officials say an F-22 bomber would be a new plane, not just a new mission for the existing fighter. To emphasize the plane's current role, the service ditched the F/A-22 fighter-attack designation that the program carried for a while.

"When they talk about a bomber version of the F-22, they're talking about cutting it in the middle, extending it and making a bomber, for long-range strike," said Maj. Gen. Richard Lewis, F-22 program manager, in a recent interview. "It would still have the basic characteristics of an F-22 but it would be much bigger scale."

Lexington Institute defense analyst Loren Thompson said the Air Force may not be able to resist a new incarnation of its favorite fighter.

"You have to look at everything the Air Force does on F-22 through the filter of recognition that it is by far the Air Force's highest priority program," said Thompson, who provides consulting services to Lockheed Martin and other defense companies.

Thompson predicted that military commanders wouldn't trust an unmanned plane enough to give it precedence for the next bomber. But GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike, who maintains an exhaustive database of military weapons information, said a pilot may no longer be a priority.

"I think that about two years ago, the Air Force stopped asking where do you put the pilot on these," Pike said, noting that the Air Force recently canceled a Boeing project to develop a new combat drone. He said leaders may have concluded from that project that they want a full-size unmanned bomber, not just the smaller aircraft envisioned at the time.

Boeing said it would be making use of its research on the canceled project as it looks at new bomber prospects. "We are focused on providing a solution to what the customer wants. We're definitely in the competition for long-range strike," said Erik Simonsen, a spokesman for Boeing's defense research unit.

Lockheed Martin also is working on the project. "Our Skunk Works or Advanced Development Programs is designing several concepts that may meet Air Force requirements for this new aircraft," Lockheed Martin spokesman Thomas Jurkowsky said.

As the new bomber takes shape, the Air Force will conduct an analysis of alternatives to flesh out its plans and expectations. It also will have to find the money. Analysts say the Air Force has a big classified budget, but many of those funds are already paying for satellites and intelligence programs.

Steven Kosiak, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments analyst and a close observer of the classified budget, said he didn't know what the Air Force had up its sleeve. There is enough money to cover a long-range strike program of some kind, he said, but not necessarily on a grand scale.

"If under the old plan it wasn't supposed to get fielded for quite some time, one wouldn't expect that they have a black program that's very far along," Kosiak said.

Copyright 2006, MarketWatch, Inc.