The US Air Force's biggest research program is also one of its most mysterious

Northrop Grumman AdScreenshot/ Grumman’s teaser for the Long Range Strike-Bomber.

The most expensive weapons system under the Air Force’s $US17.9 billion research, development, test, and evaluation funding request for 2016 is also without a doubt the most mysterious.

Under the proposed 2016 budget, the Air Force has requested an allocation of $US1.2 billion for its Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program, according to Defence News. The program, which is expected to reach initial operating capability by the mid-2020s, envisions the construction of 80-100 planes each with an estimated unit cost of $US550 million (although the actual cost will likely be much higher).

The LRS-B is being billed as the successor to the US Air Force’s current B-2 Stealth Bomber. Last summer, the Air Force opened a competition for the development and construction of the plane. Northrop Grumman, the developer of the B-2, and a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin are vying for the chance to build the LRS-B.

Alongside the F-35 and the KC-46 aerial refueling plane, the LRS-B is one of the Air Force’s top three priorities for future research and acquisition.

“I think the long-range strike bomber is absolutely essential to keep our deterrent edge as we go into the next 25 years,” Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a town-hall meeting at Whiteman Air Force Base.

The focus on the development of the LRS-B, alongside the F-35 and the KC-46, is aimed towards the Air Force having a “family of systems” approach in which each airframe seamlessly complements the others during operations.

“Everyone focuses on ‘the fighter,'” Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told National Defence Magazine. “But the answer to next generation air dominance is likely to be a family, like the long-range bomber.

Although details of the LRS-B program are classified, the plane is expected to be stealth, and nuclear capable — and perhaps even able carry out missions without a manned crew.

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