Boeing's Phantom Ray drone sits on a runway at Edwards Air Force Base.… (Tony Landis, Boeing )
Deep in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by tiers of barbed-wire fence, the nation's largest defense contractors work in secrecy designing and building the latest military aircraft at Air Force Plant 42.
The military's top weapons buyer quietly visited the Palmdale facility this month to talk with leading aerospace executives about plans to build a fleet of radar-evading bombers that the military hopes to have ready for action by the mid-2020s.
The plane would be the first long-range bomber built in the U.S. since the last of the 21 bat-winged B-2 stealth bombers by Northrop Grumman Corp. rolled off the assembly lines at Plant 42 more than a decade ago. The Air Force owns the 5,800-acre industrial park and leases space to aerospace contractors.
Now on the Pentagon wish list is a proposed fleet of 80 to 100 nuclear-capable bombers that could operate with or without a pilot in the cockpit.
Pentagon weapons acquisition chief Ashton Carter met separately with representatives of Northrop, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said. These companies are expected to vie for the estimated $55-billion contract that is expected to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California's aerospace industry.
Although the contractors declined to discuss the high-level meetings, Northrop and Boeing were quick to express interest in competing for the contract when the acquisition plan is laid out.
"Northrop Grumman employees in California designed, produced and currently maintain the nation's newest bomber in the U.S. Air Force fleet, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber," said Randy Belote, a Northrop spokesman.
"Our people and capabilities in California and across the company," he said, "stand ready to assist the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force in meeting the nation's future requirements for the long-range-strike mission."
A Boeing spokesman said the company "will compete in the bomber competition," and Lockheed declined to comment.
This program may also have a broad effect on the mom-and-pop machine shops and other contractors that could be called upon to make parts for the bomber, said Fred Downey, a national security analyst with the Aerospace Industries Assn., an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.
Federal spending is under major scrutiny in Washington, and Congress certainly would examine any proposal for a new jet. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who himself has advocated scaling down Pentagon spending, has repeatedly defended the need to acquire bombers.
"It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service," he said at a news briefing this year. Gates is slated to hand over the reins of the Pentagon to CIA Director Leon Panetta next month.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, supports the project.
"The Air Force and the Defense Department have made clear that replacements are needed for America's aging bomber fleet and that long-range strike should be a priority," McKeon aide John Noonan said. "The chairman concurs with their assessment."
There is $197 million set aside for developing the bomber in the 2012 fiscal budget, and $3.7 billion is allocated for the program over the next five years, said Maj. Chad Steffey, an Air Force spokesman.
The program's prospects in Congress also look strong, with the support of prominent congressional Republicans such as McKeon.
"The Defense Department is serious about doing this program," said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. "The last time they tried to upgrade their bomber force, they bought 21 B-2s. That's not nearly enough to modernize the fleet."
The B-2 fleet now numbers 20 — one crashed in Guam in 2008. The Air Force also has 66 B-1 bombers, built in the 1980s, and 85 B-52 bombers, which were built in the 1960s and modified for use today.
"The Air Force believes it's overdue for an upgrade," Harrison said, adding that funding for the new bomber program could already be underway through the Air Force's $12.6-billion classified, or "black," budget for weapons research and development.
Building bombers under the black budget is not unprecedented. The U.S. government didn't lift the veil on the B-2 program until a decade after it had begun, revealing one of the largest weapons development efforts since the Manhattan Project produced the atomic bomb in the 1940s.