The Air Force official charged with managing the B-21 program reaffirmed that the service has no plans to disclose the overall contract value, contending that publicizing the figure would give U.S. adversaries too much insight into the program.Despite congressional pressure to release the total value of contracts awarded to Northrop Grumman for B-21 development and production, the service maintains that doing so could compromise the secrecy of the classified program, said Randall Walden, program executive officer of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. The office is responsible for procuring the bomber and other classified weapons systems.
“Releasing that [data], releasing other things that may be more insightful to our adversaries, I don’t think helps the taxpayer and I don't think it helps — certainly — the warfighter,” he said during a Tuesday event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “All we're doing is putting in that risk and we're showing our hand of what we believe this nation and the states' workers can deliver this particular weapon system for.”
The service would disclose any cost overruns if they were to constitute a Nunn-McCurdy breach, which requires congressional notification, Walden said. He also acknowledged that the contract data could become public in future years.
“But right now is probably not the time to do that,” he added.
One of the B-21’s harshest critics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Wednesday reiterated that he is not satisfied by that argument and would continue to press the service to release additional cost information.
"The Air Force has already told our enemies what each plane costs, what it looks like, and who is making its most important components. All of this would seem to be more useful information for a foreign intelligence agency than the overall contract value,” he said in a statement.
But not all lawmakers agree with him. When the Senate Armed Services Committee met in closed session to hash out its annual defense policy bill, there was a vote on whether to keep aspects of the B-21 secret. McCain's push to lift the veil failed by a broad margin, according to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
"It's not secrecy, it's classification to keep it from our enemies; I don't want our enemies to reverse engineer," Nelson told Defense News. "That wasn't even a close vote. The McCain provision did not prevail. This is what it is, you don't want to give the stealth bomber technologies to the very people you're trying to use it against."
McCain’s comment referenced the scant details that have been published by the Air Force: conceptual images of the B-21, an envisioned $550 million per-unit cost and a list of subcontractors working on the program.
Meanwhile, the service has kept a tight hold on the value of the contract awarded to Northrop Grumman last year. The contract is broken up into two parts: a cost-plus-incentive-fee deal for the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) phase, and an agreement on the first five lots of low rate initial production (LRIP), which will be fixed-price incentive fee.
McCain has advocated for that information to become public, but Walden on Tuesday said those numbers have little value to the public because they don't account for the total cost of the bomber as family of systems.
Whether the Air Force would reverse course has been an open question since last week’s confirmation hearing for Gen. David Goldfein, who is tapped to be the next Air Force chief of staff. During an exchange with McCain, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, Goldfein said he agreed with the senator that, if the service was not transparent with U.S. taxpayers “through its elected leadership,” the bomber program could be in danger of cancellation.
In his written testimony, however, Goldfein stated that the contract value needed to remain classified to protect vital information.
“There is a strong correlation between the cost of an air vehicle and its total weight, thus making it decisively easier for our adversaries to calculate the aircraft capabilities and develop countermeasures,” he wrote.
Northrop Gets to Work
Information on the classified program remains scarce, but Walden disclosed some new details during the Tuesday event.
Prime contractor Northrop Grumman has completed its spend plan and is hiring personnel for its Melbourne, Fla., location to work on the bomber, he said. The first set of B-21s could roll off the production line as early as 2025.
"We believe that we are going to be able to beat that $550 [million per-unit cost],” he said. “That's been really our theme to date.”
The aircraft already has undergone assessments by an Air Force "red team" in order to ensure the aircraft will be able to meet projected threats, Walden said. More evaluations will occur as development progresses. The military routinely uses so-called red teams, composed of subject-matter experts, to get a devil's advocate view on plans and capabilities.
“In most cases where the threat may change or [is] perceived to be changing, we'll ask the red team to step up and continue to look at the survivability attributes and how it would be able to conduct its mission in a highly contested environment,” he said.
— With additional reporting by Joe Gould