WASHINGTON, Sept 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force said on Wednesday that two competing designs for the next-generation bomber are stealthier than the B-2 bomber and have been more extensively tested than other developmental weapons programs before a contract award.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James last week said the service would award a contract soon for the new long-range bomber, which will replace the current aging B-1 and B-52 bombers, but refused to be drawn on a specific date.
Northrop Grumman Corp, maker of the B-2 bomber, is competing against a team made up of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp for a deal that could be worth $50 billion to $80 billion.
The Air Force has already spent $1.8 billion on early development of designs for the new bomber. Few details have emerged to date, given the classified nature of the program, with little to be divulged even after the contract award to guard against foreign spying.
Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick confirmed details about the bomber program that were first reported Wednesday by Defense News, citing comments made by Air Force officials to a small group of think tanks and other groups on Tuesday.
He said both bomber designs could be certified to carry new weapons in the future, and could be flown remotely.
Air Force officials described both designs as “very mature” and said they had undergone wind tunnel testing and extensive survivability tests, although neither design had actually flown, according to the Defense News report.
Loren Thompson, analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said the Air Force planned from the start to harvest technologies from other programs, but the winning bidder would still face huge challenges integrating the engines and other equipment into the stealthy air frame.
The Air Force said the two designs were very different from each other, with different teams building engines, electronic warfare equipment and other subsystems.
The Air Force also confirmed that it expected to award the winning bidder a cost-plus contract, plus incentive fees, to complete development, followed by a fixed-price contract, also with incentive fees, for production of the first 21 bombers.
Gulick gave no timetable for a contract award, saying it would come when officials were ready.
Sources familiar with the process said the acquisition process was now in its final stages, and a contract award was likely in late September or the first half of October. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)