Air Force’s $2 Billion Bomber Request Pays for Staff, Drawings

  • Service official discloses what’s in B-21 request for 2018
  • Northrop’s performing as expected so far, official says

The B-21 will replace the B-1 Lancer, pictured.

Source: Sgt. Richard P. Ebensberger/USAF

The $2 billion that the U.S. Air Force wants to spend this fiscal year for the new B-21 bomber would go toward added staffing for contractor Northrop Grumman Corp., software development and producing detailed engineering drawings, according to a top service official.

While the items listed by Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan were predictable for early work on a major weapons system, it provided a peek behind the curtain of plans for the new bomber that could become an $80 billion program for at least 100 of the aircraft. Donovan came to the Pentagon from the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, John McCain, has protested that the bomber is being shrouded in excessive secrecy.

“One of the things I was concerned about before I moved over” to assume the Air Force’s No. 2 civilian post is the budget is unclassified even if the bomber’s capabilities must remain secret, Donovan said in an interview Tuesday.

“Senator McCain’s view is ‘Look, the American taxpayer deserved to know how you can spend that money,’” said Donovan, who had been the top staff aide on aircraft issues for the committee’s majority Republicans.

In a June 6 exchange with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, McCain of Arizona said that “it’s understandable to keep the B-21-specific warfighting capabilities classified, but it’s difficult to understand why you should keep other aspects of the program under the veil of secrecy,” such as the $2 billion request for fiscal 2018.

Telling Committees

Wilson replied: “Senator, we are very open with the appropriate committees and the Congress about exactly what we’re doing and what we’re spending it on.”

The Air Force hasn’t publicly disclosed the value to Northrop of the development contract it was awarded in 2015 or the fee amount set aside to reward the company for good performance. But it has provided information such as how much has been spent to date and the projected research, procurement and per-jet costs.

On the request for the year that began Oct. 1, Donovan said, “Part of that money is being spent on staffing -- we’ve got to staff up the contractor so they can really move out on this thing. Software development is always an issue so we’ve got to make sure the software stays on track.”

Money also will be spent on producing engineering drawings for a “clean-sheet” design, he said, which means the new bomber won’t be an adaptation of the B-2 stealth bomber or other existing aircraft, as some analysts have suggested.

Northrop’s performance is “generally on track” and “within the windows of expected progress that we’ve expected at this point,” Donovan said. Still, “there is some risk in this program because it’s a brand new, clean-sheet design. So we’ll work through those.”

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