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The U.S. Air Force wants a new stealthy long range bomber. Last week it got strong support from outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Reportedly, in a meeting with Air Force personnel, the secretary voiced a strong support in the plan to build a costly new long-range strike bomber.

“It’s always about strategic deterrence so that we don’t have to send our men and women into conflict,” Secretary Hagel told several hundred listeners. “Our adversaries have to know we can deter them. They and have to believe it. Essentially, they have to trust that we have deterrent capability, that in fact we do have everything we say we have.” The outgoing secretary of defense was quoted in Military Times.

Secretary Hagel said the military should invest billions of dollars in developing a new aircraft to replace some of today’s aging bombers, namely Northrop Grumman’s B-2 and even more so Boeing’s B-52, which is more than 50 years old. He said the new aircraft program, known as the Long-Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, will be well funded in the budget request slated for release in February.

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Northrop Grumman’s B-2
Northrop Grumman’s B-2

Officially, the Pentagon launched the LRS-B program last year. The process is currently past the RFI (Request for Information) and stage is set for the next stage, which is sending a request for proposals from defense contractors. The final contenders for the mega-contract to replace the current US bombers will either be the joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin bid or the Northrop Grumman proposal.

Nevertheless, it is widely believed among defense industry pundits that production of the aircraft is well underway, jump-started with money from classified budgets. This, according to the Congressional Research Service.

However crucial to maintaining an effective US strategic deterrent, the US future bomber has already attracted concerns about its ultimate price tag. Pentagon officials respond to this criticism by reiterating it is not likely the defense budget could accommodate a figure higher that the widely quoted $550 million per aircraft in the framework of a proposed production of up to 100 aircraft.

It should be noted, that the LRS-B program is relatively low key. Interested parties, from the Pentagon through the prospective developers to the US Navy, Air Force and Army, regularly decline to comment on it. Very little is actually known about the future bombers’ features, capabilities or design.