Secret S$109b B-21 bomber programme praised by Pentagon inspector general

An artist rendering of the Northrop Grumman Corp B-21 bomber released on Feb 26, 2016.
An artist rendering of the Northrop Grumman Corp B-21 bomber released on Feb 26, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The Air Force's classified next-generation bomber programme began with a solid plan for meeting cost goals and warfighting requirements, which include an option to fly unmanned missions, according to a newly declassified audit from the Pentagon's inspector general.

The challenge will be sticking to that plan.

The early praise for the US$80 billion (S$109 billion) B-21 programme came about a month before the Air Force selected Northrop Grumman over a rival team consisting of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the bomber contract in late 2015.

While big-ticket weapons systems like the B-21 frequently end up with significant cost increases and production delays, in the initial stages the Air Force was cited for its "comprehensive acquisition strategy and risk-management process to support a cost-effective programme," according to the audit. The programme had "clearly defined requirements to ensure" warfighter "needs are being met," it added.

That initial assessment is no guarantee the B-21 will not encounter serious cost, schedule and performance problems as system development continues, with the service seeking to declare an initial operating capability by the "mid to late 2020s", Global Strike Command spokesman Joe Thomas said in an email. The aircraft's first flight "along with specific details of the technical capability of this platform, is protected by enhanced security measures," he added.

The previously classified audit was released this month under a Freedom of Information Act request after the service made major redactions, adding additional secrecy to a programme critics such as Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have complained was already excessively classified.

The inspector general's report also disclosed details about the B-21's expected capabilities. In addition to being able to carry and deliver a modified B-61 nuclear bomb two years after reaching its initial operating capability stage, the bomber will also be capable of unmanned operations.

As the audit is redacted, it could not be determined whether the service allowed only favourable conclusions to be released while keeping any criticism cloaked in secrecy.

The Air Force, for example, released the conclusion that the service had a detailed contracting strategy but blacked out a paragraph that preceded the sentence "under this approach the Federal Government assumes some of the research and development risk".

The praise also means the inspector general's assessment will come under scrutiny if the programme veers off track, in costs or performance, as it proceeds.

Still, the conclusions released mark the second time an outside group has praised the service's acquisition approach.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a February 2016 decision that rejected a protest filed by Boeing-Lockheed Martin against the Northrop award, praised the selection process.

Northrop Grumman's "significantly lower proposed prices" for initial production "created a near-insurmountable obstacle" to Boeing "achieving best-value" or to "demonstrating prejudice" in the Air Force's calculation of realistic costs, the GAO said.

The Pentagon's inspector general also said the programme office "incorporated adequate processes to develop accurate cost positions and funding requirements" and the review system set up with Pentagon cost analysts "ensures appropriate oversight, accurate development and effective approach for funds management," said the audit.

The service also developed a "detailed contracting strategy" and "adequately developed and incorporated a process to develop an accurate cost position and program schedule," said the audit.

Despite McCain's criticism of excessive secrecy, Congress has supported the programme, approving US$2 billion in the fiscal 2018 policy bill the Air Force requested towards added staffing for Northrop Grumman, software development and producing detailed engineering drawings.