NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland Defense Secretary Robert Gates threw his support on Wednesday behind an on-again, off-again plan to develop a new long-range U.S. bomber, citing the military modernization of China.
"I am committed to seeing the United States has an airborne long-range strike capability," Gates said at an annual conference of the U.S. Air Force Association, an advocacy group.
He said the United States should be less concerned with a toe-to-toe challenge from "countries like China" and "more concerned with their ability to disrupt our freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options."
Gates referred to investments that "could threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific - in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups." He cited the threat from cyber- and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry as well as ballistic missiles.
"This would degrade the effectiveness of short-range fighters and put more of a premium on being able to strike from over the horizon - whatever form that capability might take," Gates said.
As recently as April, Gates pulled the plug on a potential $15 billion effort to build a new bomber to follow the radar-evading B-2, designed by Northrop Grumman Corp in the 1980s.
"We will not pursue a development program for a follow-on Air Force bomber until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology," Gates said on April 6 while outlining his priorities for the fiscal 2010 defense budget.
He said at the time the issue would be examined as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's blueprint for the next four years.
In endorsing a follow-on bomber on Wednesday, "a prospective B-3, if you will," Gates noted the congressionally mandated review was still under way.
But he said whatever system might be chosen to meet the requirement - whether manned, unmanned or some combination of the two - "it should be one that realistically can be produced in the numbers originally envisioned."
The B-2 ended up costing some $2 billion each, because less than one-sixth of a planned 132-bomber fleet were built.
The Air Force has been keen to develop a new long-range strike capability by 2018, an effort likely to cost at least $15 billion, according to Barry Watts, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a research group in Washington D.C.
The future bomber likely would need an unrefueled combat radius of 2,500 nautical miles, measured from the last mid-air refueling spot in "friendly" air space, Watts said in a telephone interview.
In January 2008, Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp announced they would partner in pursuit of an anticipated U.S. Air Force "next-generation" bomber program.
As the incumbent, Northrop Grumman looks forward to competing to bring its know-how to bear on the B-2's replacement, said Randy Belote, a company spokesman.
(Editing by Alison Williams)