Air Force Official: Releasing Full B-21 Contract Value 'Too Insightful' For Enemies

By Vivienne Machi
Photo: Artistic rendering of the B-21

The leader of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office doubled down June 21 on the service's refusal to release the overall contract value of the forthcoming B-21 stealth bomber program.

Amid questions of cost transparency, Randall Walden, the RCO's director and program executive officer, said that releasing the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) contract award value for the long-range strike bomber would give foreign adversaries too much information.

"I think it's too insightful for the adversaries to get a sense of what they can do, what the U.S. can do, in building that next-generation bomber," he said at a Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Virginia.

"I don't think it helps the taxpayer; I don't think it helps … the warfighter. And we're showing our hand of what we believe this nation and, in this case, Northrop, can deliver on this particular weapon system," he continued.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter directed the Air Force to develop the new long-range strike bomber beginning in 2012, and a development contract for a family of systems, including the B-21 bomber, was issued to Northrop Grumman this past October. The Rapid Capabilities Office, created in 2003, expedites development and fielding of specific combat support and weapon systems across the Department of Defense, and conducts projects on accelerated timelines.

The Air Force plans to purchase 100 aircraft at a cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars, or $606 million each in 2016 dollars. But Walden said that he believed "that we are going to be able to beat that 550" number based on an government independent cost estimate that showed the unit cost as closer to $511 million in 2010 dollars, or $564 million in 2016 dollars.

The Air Force anticipates fielding the B-21 at operational bases and to achieve initial operational capability by 2030, and to continue fielding the fleet and evolving the aircraft as new threats and technologies emerge through 2060, Walden said.

The independent cost estimate for the EMD phase is $23.5 billion, Walden said. But that number doesn't reveal how the contract is allocated, and detractors fear that separate features such as nuclear weapons capability or unmanned flight could be packaged under separate and classified contracts, and cause the price per plane to balloon.

This lack of transparency and fear of runaway costs was a main target for the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee while the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 was being drafted.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a provision to the bill that would require the public disclosure of the total contract award value for the EMD phase of the program, which was rejected during a committee markup vote. The Senate approved the annual defense bill on June 14 with a vote of 85-13.

McCain lambasted the service's refusal to release the EMD amountin an op-ed posted June 15 on the online publishing platform Medium. "The Air Force has already told our enemies what each plane costs, what it looks like, and who is making its most important components," he wrote. "All of this would seem to be more useful information for a foreign intelligence agency than the overall contract value," he wrote.

"There is simply no excuse for this unprecedented concealment of information about how American taxpayer dollars are being spent," he continued.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he agreed with McCain while testifying June 16 at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to consider his nomination for chief of staff of the Air Force. Current chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, retires in July.

"I believe that if we're not transparent with the American people on the cost of this weapon system through its elected leadership, then we have a good chance of losing this program," Goldfein said.

Along with the B-21, Walden also touched on two other programs coming out of the RCO at the Mitchell Institute: the first being the Common Mission Control Center, a weapons system operation that enables a variety of manned and unmanned platforms to communicate and operate together in support of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

"In some of the weapon systems that we were doing across the spectrum … each system out there … had its own stovepipe, and each stovepipe derived a set of services," Walden said. "And in most cases, they were creating their own version of those services. It was clear to us at the time that we were doing exactly the same thing."

The system, which will be headquartered at Beale Air Force Base in California, has already completed various stages of simulated and live-flying demonstrations over the past two years, ahead of expected production completion in 2017, Walden said.

He also spoke of the RCO's developments in open architecture to enable affordable capability and sustained competition by integrating and upgrading technologies onto an existing system to keep up with new capabilities or tech updates, rather than building a whole new system from scratch.

The Air Force's Open Mission Systems standard was adopted in 2014, and allows prime contractors to publish system architecture standards to help more companies develop technologies that work with the prime contractor's platform.

Walden said that the numbers the office was showing today "run anywhere from about 40 percent to about 90 percent, both reduction in timelines and in cost," via demonstrations and testing on a handful of programs, including the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and the B-52 Stratofortress.

Photo: Air Force

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Science and Engineering Technology

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