Asia Defense

US Senate Votes to Keep Stealth Bomber Cost Top-Secret

U.S. Senators voted behind closed doors to keep the costs of the U.S. Air Force’s B-21 from the public.

US Senate Votes to Keep Stealth Bomber Cost Top-Secret
Credit: U.S. Air Force

In May, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee voted against public disclosure of the contract cost to design and build the U.S. Air Force’s new long-range B-21 stealth bomber due to the fear that revealing the bid value would provide U.S. adversaries with too much information about the aircraft’s capabilities, CQ Roll Call reports.

As a result, the contract cost figures can now only be disclosed during classified briefings to the congressional committees dealing with defense issues. “I don’t want to give our enemies information by which they can figure out” details of the bomber’s construction, Senator Bill Nelson told CQ Roll Call. Another senator who voted against public disclosure said that the Pentagon “asserted that disclosure as requested would provide information to our adversaries about the capabilities of the aircraft.”

The vote against revealing the bomber costs defeats an effort by the Armed Services Committee Chairman, Senator John McCain, to require the public disclosure of the contract value. “You’re not serving the nation and the taxpayers if they don’t know how much of their taxpayer dollars are being spent,” McCain said during a hearing in March.

As I reported previously, McCain also said in February that he would not authorize the new bomber as long as it was procured using a cost-plus contract. “My biggest concern is the cost-plus provision in the contract. I will not stand for cost-plus contracts,” the senator noted. “Somehow the commercial side can do this without a cost-plus contract. It is an evil that has grown and grown and grown over the years, and I will not stand for it on any weapon system.”

The contract awarded to U.S. defense contractor Northrup Grumman in October 2015  is divided into two parts: one cost-plus and one firm fixed price. I explained previously (See: “Confirmed: Work on the Pentagon’s Top Secret Bomber to Continue”):

The contract awarded [in October] was for the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase, a “cost reimbursable type contract with cost and performance incentives,” (…) at an estimated worth of $21.4 billion in 2010 dollars.

The second part of the contract consists of options for the first five production lots to cover the production of the first 21 bombers. The USAF is expected to buy 80 to 100 bombers overall. In current dollars, the price tag for each bomber is estimated at $564 million. (Since few defense analysts expect the Pentagon to buy all 100 aircraft, the per unit cost is very likely to increase.)

Fixed-cost contracts, however, have also not succeeded in reducing overall program costs, as a RAND study recently found. The crux of the matter is that at this stage in the process neither Northrup Grumman nor the U.S. Air Force genuinely know how much it will cost to design and build the B-21 stealth bomber, an aircraft with a completely new design that also will incorporate some existing technologies.