Officially, the $3.7 billion set aside for the “Long Range Strike” program in the Pentagon’s 2012 budget is meant simply to draw up plans for a new, stealthy heavy bomber for the Air Force — a replacement for the Cold War era fleet of long range, strategic 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,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said.
What he didn’t say is that the new bomber might already be flying, in prototype form, somewhere deep inside the Air Force’s complex of secret test bases.
According to the Pentagon, the new bomber is still just a concept. “Right now we’re in the technology-leveraging phase,” said Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, a senior Air Force budget official. Over the next five years, the Air Force plans to spend $3.7 billion on the bomber, with the goal of equipping the first squadron in the early 2020s.
This is actually the Air Force’s second attempt in just four years to build a new bomber. The first try — the so-called “2018 bomber” — was canceled on cost and technical grounds in 2009. The current go-around is designed to avoid those pitfalls. “We are relying on mature” — proven — “technologies, [so] we will be able to mitigate a lot of risk,” added Marilyn Thomas, Flowers’ civilian deputy.