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This image in a new Northrup Grumman ad that aired during the Super Bowl highlights its Long Range Strike Bomber program. Northrop Grumman won the coveted Air Force contract to build the next-generation stealth bomber, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015.

This image in a new Northrup Grumman ad that aired during the Super Bowl highlights its Long Range Strike Bomber program. Northrop Grumman won the coveted Air Force contract to build the next-generation stealth bomber, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. (YouTube screengrab)

WASHINGTON — The Air Force is looking to spend at least $55 billion on its next generation stealth bomber and could select a contractor for the project in the coming days, the service’s top acquisition officer said Wednesday.

Two designs — one by Northrop Grumman and the other by a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Boeing — are competing as the replacement for the 50-year-old B-52s and 30-year-old B-1 Lancers. Whichever design is selected will join the 16 B-2 Spirit stealth bombers still in service.

“We’re really, really close to the announcement of the award of the bomber,” said William LaPlante, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

The Air Force had delayed its decision, looking to procure 100 bombers at an estimated $550 million each. Some critics have challenged the cost because it does not include billions in research and development spending, and is anchored in 2010 dollars. Accounting for inflation, each bomber could now cost more than $600 million, LaPlante said.

When the contract is announced, the Air Force will include estimated costs for the procurement, research and development of the bomber, LaPlante said.

The initial contract that the Air Force is expected to announce this week will be for prototype aircraft used for research and development. The contract will cover the purchase of up to 21 bombers, LaPlante said. The Air Force would then purchase the remaining bombers on a fixed-price contract.

The Air Force hopes to begin using the new bombers in the mid-2020s. But the project has been highly classified.

The next generation bomber, known as LRS-B for “long-range strike bomber,” or more commonly “B-3,” will be able to operate in the most heavily defended environments with a combination of stealth, propulsion and other classified advantages. It will be able to deliver a nuclear warhead or other munition “anywhere in the world at the time of our choosing,” LaPlante said.

When the next-generation bomber program was first announced in 2008, the Chinese announced a long-range strike program at the same time. The Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter designs led to the very similar J-31 by the Chinese. It was later revealed the classified design files were stolen and released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“We need to preserve as long as we can, as much as we can, the advantage of what we’re doing,” LaPlante said.

copp.tara@stripes.com Twitter: @TaraCopp

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