Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two largest defense contractors in the U.S., have agreed to form a joint team to compete against Northrop...

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Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two largest defense contractors in the U.S., have agreed to form a joint team to compete against Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation long-range bomber, the companies announced today.

The Air Force is expected to announce late in 2009 its precise requirements for a new bomber that would be operating by 2018.

Engineers from Boeing and Lockheed have already been working together on preliminary studies for at least a year, said Darryl Davis, president of Boeing’s Advanced Systems.

The joint team will be headquartered at Boeing’s defense systems center in St. Louis. The language used in the teleconference announcing the agreement made clear that Boeing is the lead partner — though the two companies wouldn’t confirm this.

Frank Cappuccio, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager of Advanced Development Programs (known as Skunk Works) and Strategic Planning, said Lockheed had approached Boeing because of its 60 years of experience in building bombers.

Cappuccio said Lockheed didn’t have the “credentials” in manufacturing bombers to go it alone.

Air Force officials have publicly indicated that they will likely want a manned, subsonic bomber with about 2,000 miles unrefueled combat radius and bomb payload capacity of between 14,000 and 28,000 pounds. The aircraft would be expected to fly for the first time around 2016.

Davis said the partnership would leave open the plane’s precise configuration until the Air Force lays out its requirements.

“Our approach is agnostic,” said Davis. “It could be manned. It could be unmanned. It could be optionally manned.”

But given the Air Force’s most recent public statements, the new bomber will likely be manned and will combine Stealth technologies from the B-2 bomber and the advanced electronic warfare sensors of the F-22 jet fighter.

Boeing was a major subcontractor to Northrop on the B-2 and is today a major partner to Lockheed on the F-22.

The last major bomber developed, the B-2, started as a classified program in the late 1970s and first flew in 1989. It cost about $45 billion to develop and build 21 of the bombers, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Both Davis and Cappuccio said the Air Force needs a new bomber because of the age of the technology on the current bombers.

Cappuccio said that active service in Iraq and Afghanistan is putting stress on the current bomber fleet.

“They are putting on tremendous numbers of hours. They are doing roles they were never meant to do.” Cappuccio said. “They are using up life.”

He said that the electronics is technically obsolete on bombers such as the Lockheed F-117, a fighter/bomber that is set for retirement.

“These things are costing more money. Just getting some of the switches in the (F-117) cockpit is impossible,” he said. “It’s really an economic thing. Would you want to hold on to your 1979 Chevy for another 20 years?”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or