Boeing and Lockheed Martin announced Oct. 25 that they will team to compete on the U.S. Air Force’s Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program, with Boeing as the prime contractor and Lockheed Martin as primary teammate.

The program is aimed at delivering 80-100 very stealthy, long-range bombers to the Air Force, with an initial operational capability in 2024-26, and with a unit cost ceiling of $550 million.

The development is a sign of progress in a largely classified venture that has been underway since 2007, when the two companies originally agreed to work on what was then the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB) program, aimed at delivering a new bomber in 2018. (The deal was announced in early 2008.)

NGB was canceled as a full acquisition program in 2009 in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but the Air Force was given the go-ahead to launch the LRS-B program in early 2011—with relaxed operational requirements, particularly related to endurance, and a lower cost target. Unlike NGB, the LRS-B is expected to work as part of a family of LRS systems, including a long-endurance, stealthy unmanned air system and a future cruise missile. However, NGB has continued in parallel as the umbrella for a number of risk-reduction efforts, including, according to an industry source, a large-scale flight demonstrator produced by the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, who retired in late 2011 as the Air Force’s military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said in September at the Air Force Association’s convention that risk-reduction contracts were awarded in five key areas that are crucial technologies for the LRS-B, and where competitors will be able to score points by exceeding threshold requirements.

One government source suggested to Aviation Week that the “risk-reduction” contracts may in some cases be quite large. “The risk being hedged against is the risk of not being able to deliver an aircraft in 2025,” he says. “Unless you’re close to flying something now, you’re not going to do that.”

Boeing’s leadership role in the program confirms reports that the company’s long—but largely unadvertised—work in stealth technology has reached the point where it is a strategic advantage, having pioneered and demonstrated aircraft designs with lower radar cross-section numbers than were previously considered practical. Lockheed Martin brings its operational stealth experience to the party, along with the aerodynamic technology demonstrated on the Polecat UAV prototype. Northrop Grumman, producer of the B-2 and other classified platforms, will be the other LRS-B competitor.