• He calls refusal to release Northrop bid amount `unbelievable'
  • Air Force says amount of bid would give clues to secret plane

Countering a project cloaked in secrecy, the Senate panel responsible for defense policy will direct the Air Force to make public the dollar amount of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s winning bid for a contract to develop and build the new B-21 bomber, its chairman said.

Senator John McCain said he’ll take action when the Armed Services Committee acts next month on the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill. The director of the secretive Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office that’s managing the program wrote McCain on April 11 to say the number shouldn’t be made public because there’s a “strong correlation between the cost of an air vehicle and its total weight.”

Releasing the contract value would make it “decisively easier” for U.S. adversaries to determine the stealth aircraft’s range and weapons payload, director Randall Walden wrote McCain, who has been given the classified number in a closed briefing.

The Air Force rationale is “unbelievable,” McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Tuesday in an interview. “We’ll obviously have to act legislatively” and “put it into the bill” that “they’ll have to disclose” the contract value, he said. “Taxpayers have the right to know what a weapons system they are acquiring with their dollars is going to cost.”

The House Armed Services Committee’s draft version of the bill, which it’s scheduled to approve on Wednesday, doesn’t contain a similar provision.

The Air Force has made public some estimates, including the projected $23.5 billion cost of the production phase, which includes the classified contract value.

Most aspects of the bomber remain a mystery, with its size, stealth features, structure, number and type of engines, and onboard sensors all classified. The Defense Department has released only a computer-generated graphic showing a black, wing-shaped plane flying through clouds below the Air Force insignia.

Asked whether he thinks the Air Force can meet the cost goals it set out in its classified session with him, McCain said, “Given the history of procurement in the Department of Defense, I have to say that ‘I have to be convinced.’ ”

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