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SecAF Unveils B-21 Bomber; Replies To McCain’s Contract Threat

Posted by Colin Clark on

B-3 Bomber AKA B-21

AFA WINTER: The name is not nearly as euphonious as the B-3, nor as descriptive as Long Range Strike Bomber, but Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has officially named Northrop Grumman’s aircraft the B-21 (hint — it’s the 21st century…).

James, who rumors said would unveil some details about the bomber, only unveiled the name and the above artist rendering. Does it look like the real thing? Not exactly. James told reporters after her address here that the B-21 artist’s rendering had been “altered to align with the enhanced security program,” so it’s sort of what it looks like.

Deborah Lee James

Deborah Lee James

The picture looks so much like Northrop’s magnificent and hugely expensive B-2 that one is tempted to assume that this is an advanced take on the B-2. An all-aspect stealthy aircraft capable of long range and large amounts of internally carried weaponry can take on only so many shapes. Much of the plane’s appearance is defined by physics and materiel sciences. But it may also be evidence of how much Northrop leveraged its B-2 design and flight data.

An official Air Force story posted this morning appears to put to rest the persistent rumor that there is at least one prototype of the bomber in existence. The story says: “While there are no existing prototypes of the aircraft, the artist rendering is based on the initial design concept.”

James acknowledged the aircraft’s close relationship to the B-2. “The B-21 has been designed from the beginning based on a set of requirements that allows the use of existing and mature technology,” James said.

The Air Force plans to field the initial capability of the aircraft in the mid-2020s.

On the contracting front, I asked James about Sen. John McCain’s broadside yesterday that he would halt the bomber program because the contract wasn’t fixed price. James, clearly frustrated with the problem, noted that the Air Force had briefed congressional staff on the acquisition strategy as long ago as 2014. “I mentioned earlier the whole acquisition strategy has been briefed for some time,’ she told me.

James pointed out that the contract is actually a “hybrid deal,” as I noted in my story yesterday. Here’s how it works. The plane’s development is a cost-plus incentive fee, to which McCain objects. The first five low rate production buys use a fixed-price incentive fee contract.

Sen. John McCain

Sen. John McCain

But McCain told reporters yesterday morning he would “not stand for cost-plus contracts. They will say it’s because they’re not sure of some of the things they need in the development stage,” the senator said. “The mindset in the Pentagon that still somehow these are still acceptable is infuriating.”

Bottom line for James: “We do feel this was the right approach,” noting her own years in the defense industry and the lengths to which the service and senior Pentagon officials went in crafting the approach.

Finally, James told reporters she had had an “encouraging” phone conversation with Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, about whether the company intends to pursue a lawsuit over the award of the bomber to Northrop, recently upheld by the GAO. She offered the company a broad hint about what she’s like to happen: “We have a lot going on with Boeing and we want to move ahead with the bomber.” Translation: don’t go to court, please.

What do you think?