January 27, 2009 / 9:42 PM / in 10 years

Gates suggests U.S. bomber timetable may slip

WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested on Tuesday that the Pentagon’s ambitious goal of fielding a new long-range bomber by 2018 may slip after all, given the current world economic crisis.

Gates was asked at a Senate hearing how he would ensure the military could use the new bomber in just nine years, given his earlier comments about the increasing importance of longer- range systems.

“I made that speech at a time when the economic outlook was rather different than it is now and the prospects for the defense budget perhaps different accordingly,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The next-generation bomber, a multibillion weapons project keenly awaited by big defense contractors and other major weapons systems, would be reviewed as part of the Pentagon’s next Quadrennial Defense Review, he said.

He planned to launch the review, conducted once every four years, next month, and put it on an accelerated schedule so it could shape the Obama administration’s fiscal 2010 budget and have a “dramatic” impact on the budget for the following fiscal year.

Barry Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, plans to release a report on the new bomber next week that argues for “moving forward as rapidly as possible,” the think tank said.

Watts, who headed the Pentagon’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation from 2001-2002, said his analysis was based on a range of conventional wartime scenarios, but he also felt nuclear concerns strengthened the case for rapid development of a bomber to replace the last U.S. bomber, the B-2.

Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) teamed up last year to compete for the bomber contract, vying against Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), which built the B-2.

Defense analysts say the project to build a subsonic, manned bomber with a range of about 2,000 miles, could be worth about $10 billion or more to U.S. defense contractors.

The goal of fielding the new bomber by 2018 is seen as ambitious and some analysts say the Pentagon must already be spending money on the project in its classified budget.

Earlier plans called for a new bomber to go into use in 2025 or even later. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Andre Grenon)

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