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US Air Force kicks off multibillion dollar bomber competition

RAF FAIRFORD, England, July 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force launched a formal competition on Thursday for a new long-range strike (LRS-B) bomber, saying it expected to award a contract for the multibillion-dollar program to a winning bidder next spring.

"The LRS-B is a top modernization priority for the Air Force. It will be an adaptable and highly capable system based upon mature technology," Air Force Secretary Deborah James said in a statement.

"We look forward to industry's best efforts in supporting this critical national security capability," she added.

The competition is expected to pit Northrop Grumman Corp , the maker of the B-2 bomber, against a combined team of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, the two top weapons makers for the U.S. government.

Spokesmen for both Boeing and Northrop Grumman issued statements saying the companies were interested in the program.

The Air Force has said it plans to buy as many as 100 new bombers for no more than $550 million each. It has already spent well over $500 million on the program to date, beginning in fiscal 2012.

Because the program is classified, the Air Force has shared few details about its requirements thus far and declined to say when the bids are due. The companies involved have also said very little about the program.

Last year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to protect several weapons programs, including the new bomber program, despite mandatory budget cuts facing the Pentagon.

The Air Force has said the bomber is one of its top priorities.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Jane Baird)