By Marina Malenic

Boeing [BA] indicated yesterday that it may end a two-year-old teaming agreement with Lockheed Martin [LMT] for development of a next-generation Air Force bomber aircraft, a Boeing official said yesterday.

Darryl Davis, president of Boeing’s advanced research and technology Phantom Works unit, said that the two aerospace giants could soon part ways on the effort, citing the Defense Department’s expressed desire for greater competition on large defense contracts.

“The agreement has gone into a pause mode until we understand where the government is going to head,” Davis told reporters during a teleconference. “I’m not sure the teaming agreement is going to endure, part of the reason being that the government seems to want more competition rather than less.”

Lockheed Martin officials did not immediately return calls for comment.

The United States will likely develop a new bomber airplane over the next decade, but the Pentagon has said that it wants a “family of systems,” one of which would be a streamlined bomber platform much less elaborate than its last foray into such aircraft development with the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-2.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates suspended the Air Force’s bomber development effort a year ago, asking officials to better flesh out ideas before proceeding. The president’s FY ’11 defense spending request includes $5.7 million for bomber and nuclear cruise missile industrial base sustainment. The FY ’12 request is expected to include substantial bomber seed money.

“We’re hoping at some point here in the not too distant future they’re going to tell us how they’re going to use that money,” Davis said in response to questions about how Boeing plans to proceed on development.

He added that Boeing and Lockheed Martin had been conducting work in advanced sensors and future electronic warfare solutions under their teaming arrangement.

Northrop Grumman has indicated that it would compete for any potential bomber contract, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin announced their joint effort early in 2008. As early as last summer, Boeing officials said they had no intention of splitting from the arrangement, even if the Pentagon decided to develop an unmanned platform for the mission (Defense Daily, June 4).

Meanwhile, Davis’ Phantom Works division is continuing its Phantom Ray rapid prototyping initiative, a version of the now terminated X-45 Pentagon drone project. The company is using internal funds for flight tests of the system demonstrator.

Boeing officials have said they are looking to grow the company’s unmanned systems business. They want to make inroads in a market where Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are currently the dominant players. At last year’s Paris Air Show, Boeing announced the formation of a new division to hone in on the drone market. The new division took over management responsibility for the Hummingbird, the Unmanned Little Bird and SolarEagle (Vulture) programs. Insitu Inc., manufacturer of the ScanEagle and Integrator UAS, was acquired by Boeing in 2008 and was also made part of the new division (Defense Daily, June 22).

Phantom Works, the company’s advanced unit, is a separate entity. It is developing Phantom Ray based on the prototype vehicle it originally developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy Joint-Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program. The demonstrator is scheduled to make its first flight in December 2010, according to Davis, and will conduct 10 flights over a period of approximately six months, supporting missions that may include ISR; suppression of enemy air defenses; electronic attack; hunter/killer; and autonomous aerial refueling.

Since losing the F-35 competition to Lockheed Martin in 2001 and the Navy-led Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) program to Northrop Grumman in 2007, Boeing has been studying ways to move forward in the military aircraft business. Asked whether the company was prepared to compete as a prime contractor on a bomber development effort, Davis said it was.

He also said the General Electric [GE] engine for Phantom Ray is “coming together very nicely” and expects it to be delivered within two months for installation into the aircraft. However, a Boeing/GE-designed exhaust system that was being used on a classified Pentagon program test has just recently been returned to the Phantom Ray program, possibly causing some delay to early testing initially scheduled for the spring.

Davis said the aircraft could be a candidate for a variety of Defense Department acquisition programs, including the highly anticipated next-generation Air Force MQ-X tactical drone.

“We know there’s an interest in DoD in many kinds of unmanned systems,” Davis said. “They are eyeing [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms], electronic attack aircraft and many others. We want to be a future contender in many of the emerging competitions.”