By Jen DiMascio

The nation’s two largest defense contractors–Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT]–are expected to announce today that they will join forces in an effort to make the Air Force’s next generation of bomber aircraft, according to informed sources.

Senior Air Force officials have said the service can field a new bomber by 2018–although it will have to begin as a basic model that will receive subsequent upgrades.

"It won’t be the Cadillac version because this is not required," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley said last fall, during the Air Force Association’s annual air and space conference.

What the Air Force would like the new bomber to be is a plane that can travel for 2,000 miles without stopping for gas and carry up to 28,000 pounds.

The new aircraft would potentially replace and expand the service’s fleet of B-2 stealth Spirit bombers, made by Northrop Grumman [NOC], and B-52 Stratofortress bombers made by Boeing.

During the same conference last September, Gen. Ronald Keys, commander of Air Combat Command, said potential hurdles to the program were funding, technology and politics (Defense Daily, Sept. 25, 2007). But the Air Force has said it has earmarked the money in its future budgets to support the new bomber, which is the service’s fifth highest acquisition priority (Defense Daily, Oct. 16, 2006).

An analysis of alternatives for a next-generation long-range strike system identified a new manned, subsonic bomber aircraft as the best option to pursue to meet the 2018 fielding goal (Defense Daily, May 2, 2007).

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, traditionally "vehement competitors," will make a strong team to compete against incumbent Northrop Grumman, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.

He said he sees the teaming arrangement of the two top-tier airframe integrators as a sign that companies are trying to pursue whatever opportunities present themselves and trying to diversify business before defense spending reaches its peak.