The U.S. Air Force has decided it needs a few more months before it picks the defense contractor that will build its next-generation bomber, an award that could cost the Pentagon $55 billion over the program’s lifetime.
“My hope is it’s within the next couple of months. But we have details that we still have to work through to make sure we’re doing it fair and make sure we’re going through the process,” Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary of acquisition, told a House Armed Services Committee subpanel on Tuesday.
The three-star said the potentially budget-busting effort is one “where we need to go slow to go fast. We’ve got a fair, deliberate, disciplined and impartial process.”
“This is not schedule driven, it is fact and precision-point driven,” he added.
The calendar clearly isn’t a concern for the Defense Department. The Pentagon had originally planned to award the contract for the Long Range Strike bomber in the spring. Northrop Grumman and a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture are competing to build the new stealth bomber. The Air Force wants to buy between 80 and 100 new bombers for no more than $550 million apiece to replace its aging B-52 fleet and some of its B-1 fleet.
While the highly anticipated contract award date has been pushed back before, this is the first time lawmakers have raised concerns about the delay.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the House subpanel’s chair, said the previous deferrals prompted lawmakers to cut $416 million from the program in fiscal 2016. The Air Force could lose $100 million for each additional month the announcement is delayed as prices and other factors change.
“The program promises to reinvigorate long-range surveillance and strike capabilities that have been dwindling for decades, (but) for fiscal watchdogs, the new bomber threatens to join the litany of aircraft entering service too late and over budget,” Forbes said in a statement.
His concern is well-founded. The Air Force has a poor track record of getting high-profile weapons efforts in on time and on budget, most notably the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet programs.
The Air Force has spent around $1.8 billion to develop the new aircraft since 2012. Earlier this year the service estimated the bomber would cost $58 billion over a decade to develop, up from a mistaken previous estimate of $33 billion. The Air Force ultimately said the correct figure for the 10-year cost is closer to $42 billion.
Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, told lawmakers that he was “very confident” the program office could give them accurate cost estimates, despite the previous error, noting the projections were relatively stable at $41.4 billion in 2015 and $41.7 billion in 2016.