KIRKUK, Iraq The Pentagon's fiscal 2011 budget and five-year defense plan will probably include funding for a new long-range bomber for the Air Force, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
Gates delayed funding a new bomber in fiscal 2010, which began October 1, saying the program should be scrutinized in the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, a major review of weapons programs conducted once every four years.
That review, which is now wrapping up, pointed to the need for both manned and unmanned long-range strike capabilities, Gates told U.S. troops on Friday during a visit to the contested northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
"We are probably going to proceed with a long-range strike initiative coming out of the Quadrennial Defense Review and various other reviews going on," he said. "We're looking at a family of capabilities, both manned and unmanned."
His comments could be good news for U.S. defense companies, which have bemoaned the lack of new development programs in recent years.
In 2008 Lockheed Martin Corp teamed with Boeing Co to compete against Northrop Grumman Corp to build a new bomber.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said it typically costs $30 billion to $40 billion to develop and build a new bomber, but much would depend on what the Pentagon's goals were.
He said it would probably cost around $10 billion to develop a new bomber, but funding levels would likely begin at less than $1 billion a year and ramp up slowly.
Gates told the troops that the Air Force would have an important combat role in the future, underscoring the Pentagon's commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is built by Lockheed.
InsideDefense reported this week that the Pentagon would delay development of the new fighter by at least a year, cut production by about 100 aircraft and add billions of dollars to the program.
Gates told the troops the Pentagon still plans to buy a large number of the planes.
"The biggest procurement program in the Department of Defense today is the F-35, and we're going to end up probably buying among the three services about 2,400 or 2,500 of those aircraft. So that's a big new capability," he said.
The Pentagon's plans have long called for the purchase of 2,443 F-35s by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
(Reporting by Adam Entous; Writing by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and John Wallace)