WASHINGTON • The US Air Force is getting ready to announce the winner of a multibillion-dollar contract to build a new generation of long-distance bombers that will replace ageing Cold War machines.
Dubbed the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) programme, the Air Force will in the coming weeks award the mega-contract to either Northrop Grumman or a team made up of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The programme envisions the creation of between 80 and 100 strategic bombers to replace America's fleet of B-52s and B-1s. Almost everything about it is classified, save for the cost of each plane, which was set at US$550 million per unit in 2010 dollars.
Experts and industry watchers say the bomber will be a very different animal from those it replaces.
Far from merely transporting bombs - nuclear or otherwise - the new planes will be high-altitude intelligence-gathering machines packed with sensors and surveillance equipment to scoop information.
Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia said the LRSB is likely to be of a "flying-wing" design, giving it stealth capabilities that make it hard to spot on radar. It will also be able to mask its electronic signals, as well as being packed with powerful jammers to stop enemies from targeting the plane.
It will not fly at supersonic speeds, Mr Aboulafia said, because doing so would burn up too much fuel and reduce its range, while also making it easier to spot.
"Don't make a lot of noise, don't create a radar signature, go as high as you can and, of course, have those on-board electronic warfare systems that can jam the other guy if he does target you," he said.
The United States already has a fleet of B-2 Stealth Bombers which are virtually invisible to radar and have the distinctive, flying-wing design that makes them look a bit like a sci-fi boomerang.
But overseas deployments of the B-2 are rare because the United States guards the costly aircraft's secrets. There are only 20 B-2s in existence.
The Pentagon wants the new planes to eventually be capable of being flown without a crew and to be refuellable while airborne.
But a remote-controlled bomber is not necessarily a good idea, Mr Aboulafia said, because it could be vulnerable to hacking and would need to be exploded via a "kill switch" if anything seemed to be going wrong.
"Pilots are the cheapest insurance policy ever," he said, noting that a crew could get a plane out of trouble if anything went awry.