U.S. Air Force to award sixth-generation fighter contract in 2024

A U.S. F-22 Raptor, based out of Al Udeid Base in Doha, Qatar, receives fuel from a 28th Expeditionary Air Refuelling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during a combat air patrol mission over an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Air Force intends to award a contract in 2024 for its sixth-generation fighter jet as it races to retain its edge against rapid advances in Chinese military technology, the service said on Thursday.

Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp are expected to compete for the Next Generation Air Dominance program, which will replace Lockheed's F-22 Raptor with a fighter built to battle alongside drones.

Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Air Force released a classified solicitation to industry on Thursday laying out the technical requirements. Details have been mostly kept secret but in 2020 the Air Force disclosed that at least one prototype of the jet had flown.

The new fighter will "survive, persist, interoperate, and adapt in the air domain, all within highly-contested operational environments," Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a statement. "No one does this better than the U.S. Air Force, but we will lose that edge if we don't move forward now."

The Air Force plans to spend $2.3 billion on the program in fiscal 2024, and an additional $595 million to continue engine development for the new fighter.

(Reporting by Valerie InsinnaEditing by Leslie Adler and Richard Chang)