The US Air Force will earmark billions of dollars in its next five year budget plan to help meet the Pentagon's goal to develop a new long-range bomber by 2018.

The timetable was aggressive but achievable, given the new bomber would be likely to include technologies already under development by the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US aerospace and defence industry, an official said today.

"Substantial resources will be dedicated across the future years defence plan from 2008-2013 to get there," the official said. "It will be billions," he added.

Defence analyst Loren Thompson of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute said it would cost around $20 billion to develop and build a new bomber, unless it was based on an existing aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter jet.

The USAF began a formal analysis of the alternatives for long range strike last October that could help shape the requirements for a future bomber competition.

Officials now plan to split the analysis into separate sections addressing the need for new long-range missiles, which could hit targets within a few hours, and the requirements for a next-generation bomber, which would be able to loiter over a given area for a longer time.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have already expressed interest in the bomber competition.

The idea of developing an F-22 bomber variant, first championed by former USAF Secretary James Roche, was still being considered, Thompson said.

The aircraft's radar-evading characteristics and its supersonic speed could be attractive features for a new bomber.

He predicted that the new bomber would be manned, despite increasing speculation about an unmanned aircraft that could be remotely piloted like the General Atomic RQ-1 Predator unmanned air vehicle, or fly utonomous like the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, which has been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"No amount of software is going to allow you to cope with all the things that come up in combat. You need a real pilot," Thompson said.

Source: Flight International