The U.S. Air Force’s top general says he’s determined to avoid excessive secrecy during development of the service’s new B-21 bomber, citing its predecessor as a cautionary tale.
“I know exactly how not to do this — it’s called the B-2, right? Keep it secret forever, roll it out, sticker shock” — and “you end up with 21 aircraft” instead of the 132 originally planned, Gen. David Goldfein said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.
The Air Force has kept secret key details about the new bomber, even after awarding Northrop Grumman the development contract for what’s projected to be an $80 billion project. It has disclosed some details, such as a list of subcontractors and projected development costs. At the request of lawmakers, the Pentagon’s inspector general has opened a review into whether the Air Force has imposed excessive secrecy.
The Air Force hasn’t disclosed the value to Northrop of the development contract or the fee amount set aside to award the company for good performance, for example. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who has pressed the service to make that information public, may do so again on Tuesday when Goldfein testifies before his panel.
By the mid-2020s, the B-21 is projected to join Northrop’s B-2 in the Air Force fleet as the successor to the 37-year-old B-1B and the Eisenhower-era B-52.
“As the program matures, I’ve told the team that we’re going to continue to move the ball toward more transparency, but we are going to have to work with the committees on what that looks like,” Goldfein said of the congressional armed services panels. “If we try to stay where we are right now the entire length of the program, then we’re following the path of the B-2, and we’re not going to follow that path.”
The B-2 development program was started in 1981 and approved by the Pentagon in 1987 for procurement concurrently with development and testing. It was only in April 1989 that the Air Force disclosed in public testimony that it had spent $22.4 billion on B-2 development. Per-plane estimates for the 132 planes planned were as high as $600 million.
The sticker shock resulted in some unlikely congressional alliances to curtail the program, with Rep. John Kasich, a Republican from Ohio, joining Ron Dellums, a Democrat and self-described socialist from California.
Citing the end of the Cold War and cost concerns, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cut the B-2 from 132 bombers to 75 in early 1990. Cheney cut it further to 20; Congress added one later, resulting in the 21 planes eventually built. That brought the per-unit cost to about $2.2 billion per plane, including research, development, production, operations and maintenance.
“We can’t afford to buy 21 of anything of the exquisite capability that the nation requires,” said Goldfein, who flew combat missions in four U.S. operations since the 1991 Gulf War. “There was a point in the B-2 where the structural design of the aircraft” underwent “fundamental changes when the requirements changed,” and “that was probably one of the beginnings of the end,” he said. “I’m not going to allow that to happen on this program.”
Goldfein, who’s responsible for any changes in the B-21’s key performance parameters, said he’ll be “continually poking and prodding” in his oversight role. The challenge, he said, is looking for the “sweet spot” between public transparency and disclosures that might help an enemy.
“Why would I give potential adversaries today a 10-year head start on countering this technology by being too transparent?” he said. “At the same time, how do I fulfill my obligations to the American people that their tax money is being well spent, and that’s the business of being transparent?”
Goldfein said he will share everything with congressional committees and that the Government Accountability Office “is firmly involved in this program because I want an outside entity looking in, that’s watching this and reporting to the Hill and reporting to me.”
The Air Force has publicly disclosed how much has been spent to date and projected research, procurement and per-jet costs. It’s also released a rough sketch of what the aircraft may look like. It eventually approved the release in October of a redacted version of a GAO decision from February 2016 rejecting a Boeing protest of the contract award to Northrop Grumman.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Tony Capaccio