WASHINGTON: A top House defense Democrat wants answers from Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James about costs for the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB), which is supposed to be built at a fixed price of $500 million a copy.
“Given the importance of this issue and the magnitude of the discrepancy, the Air Force must explain the nature and cause of this error,” says the letter from Speier, who is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services oversight and investigations subcommittee. Spear’s office shared the letter with us with an eye on this afternoon’s press conference (3:30 pm EST) with James and Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh.
The Air Force recently estimated the 10-year costs of the aircraft at $41.7 billion, a considerable variance from last year’s $33.1 billion and from this year’s $58.4 billion contained in reports about the Defense Department’s nuclear capabilities.
These reports included inaccurate numbers, but the Air Force says this in reply:
“The 10-year cost estimate provided by the Air Force for LRS-B in Table 4 of the FY2015 and FY2016 Section 1043 Report was incorrect. The correct 10-YEAR cost entry for both the FY2015 and FY2016 reports is $41.7B. Again, the program costs have remained stable,” Air Force spokesman An Stefanek says in an email.
In what could be considered a note to Rep. Speier, Stefanek also says: “The Air Force is working through the appropriate processes to ensure the Section 1043 Report is corrected, and that our reports in subsequent years are accurate.”
As Breaking D readers know, the Air Force cost estimates for LRSB have been the subject of considerable skepticism among some experts for some time.
The contract award for the bomber program looked to be set for late August but has now reportedly slipped to as late as October. One of six questions Speier asks James to answer is what was the original award date and why did it change. The other five include why do we have new cost estimates and which ones are accurate. And my favorite question: “Given that the B-2 program faced extensive cost overruns after being developed in secret, how much do you envision declassifying once the LRS-B contract is ultimately awarded?”
The Air Force has disclosed the existence of this new program, as well as the target cost per plane for the 80 to 100 aircraft that will be bought, but few other details have been released so it’s very difficult to tell just how much complex or advanced it will be. Senior service officials have said it will largely be based on existing technologies, will be stealthy, will be modular and will be optionally manned, but they have also said it will be a system of systems.
Frank Kendall, the head of Pentagon acquisition, has also said the Pentagon “will compete upgrades during the bomber program.” So it looks as if Boeing-Lockheed and Northrop Grumman will compete for the first 80 to 100 planes, and then upgraded versions will be open to competition.
Only those read in on the classified details know anything beyond those pretty fuzzy outlines.
For those readers who may not know, rumors have been swirling for weeks that Northrop Grumman has won the LRSB contract — but no matter how many usually reliable sources we have heard this from, those reports remain rumors.