Asia Defense

US Air Force’s New Top-Secret Bomber Faces Further Delays

The US Air Force is once more postponing the award of a contract to build the new Long-Range Strike Bomber.

US Air Force’s New Top-Secret Bomber Faces Further Delays
Credit: Northrup Grumman

This Tuesday, during a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will delay awarding a contract to develop the top-secret Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) reports.

In his testimony, Lieutenant-General Arnold Bunch, military deputy for the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition said that “[t]his is a case, sir, where we need to go slow to go fast. We’ve got a fair, deliberate, disciplined and impartial process anytime that we do a competition. And we’ve been transparent and working with industry trying to get this thoroughly done and documented so we can make that decision. It’s coming soon. That’s about as good as I can give you.”

The hawkish chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Randy Forbes, however, was clearly not impressed with the general’s opaque answer: “Do we have any idea whether that’s going to be two months, 10 years? When what do we think?” To which Bunch replied that a decision will be made “within the next couple of months.”

The contract was originally supposed to be awarded this September. Northrup Grumman is competing against a Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership to be the primary contractor for the LRS-B. Both sides allegedly have two very robust designs at hand, which substantially would accelerate the development of the new weapons platform once a winner has been selected, a point that Bunch likes to emphasize.

“What we’ve focused on with LRS-B is trying to make sure the technology is more mature than we’ve ever started a program [with],” Bunch, said at a recent event hosted by the U.S. Air Force Association, according to Defense News. “Based on where we are at and what industry partners have done, we are confident this is going to be more mature, technology-wise, than any new development program we’ve ever started.”

During yesterday’s hearing, Forbes also questioned Bunch and Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, about recent calculation errors when compiling total costs of the program.  While Walden said that he is “very confident” with the current cost estimates, Bunch admitted that the miscalculation was a “regrettable error” the reasons for which are currently being investigated. (Since the LRS-B project is a special access program it does not report detailed program information in unclassified budget justification documents.)

As I reported previously (See: “Will the US Air Force’s Top-Secret Bomber Cost 3 Billion Per Plane?”) in 2014, the Pentagon’s ten-year budget estimate for fiscal years 2015-2025 for the bomber program was $33.1 billion. However, in 2015 the estimate for fiscal years 2016-2026 suddenly jumped up to $58.4 billion. The U.S. Air Force then stated that both numbers are, in fact, wrong and that the actual ten-year costs (the first installment in the 30-year program) are $41.7 billion for each period.

The U.S. Air Force is expected to buy 80 to 100 bombers. The LRS-B, likely to be designed B-3, is purported to have stealth capability, carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, and will, in all likelihood, be optionally manned (See: “What Do We Know About the US Air Force’s New Bomber?”).