This week the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 in an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 85 to 13. This is the most significant piece of defense reform legislation passed by the Senate in 30 years, containing major reforms to Pentagon organization, the defense acquisition system, and the military health system.
One of my top priorities as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has been rooting out and eliminating wasteful spending in the Department of Defense.
That’s why the NDAA includes several oversight provisions on Pentagon weapons programs to promote transparency, protect taxpayers, ensure accountability for results, and drive the Pentagon to deliver our warfighters the capabilities they need on time, at cost, and as promised.
This oversight extends to the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber. The NDAA reduces authorized funding for the B-21 by over $300 million — a 22% cut — due to the lower than expected contract award value. And it establishes strict B-21 program baseline and cost control thresholds that will put downward pressure on cost growth.
For all the success in the NDAA, including those on oversight of weapons procurement, I was disappointed by the result of a vote during committee markup that stripped a provision I authored and supported to require the public disclosure of the total contract award value for the engineering, manufacturing, and development (EMD) phase of the B-21 program.
As we all know, defense contractors quite often underbid to win contracts, especially when the Pentagon elects to use cost-plus contracts. When a contractor can’t meet the promises of its lowball bid, costs grow and taxpayers get left with the bill. That is why public disclosure of the contract award value is so important.
But the Air Force has steadfastly resisted releasing this information. Air Force leaders have claimed that disclosing the total contract award value would make it easier for America’s adversaries to decipher sensitive information about the B-21.
Nonsense. Here are the facts.
The Air Force has already disclosed the per unit cost of the B-21 — $556 million in FY16 dollars.
The Air Force has already released an artist’s conception of the aircraft.
And the Air Force has already released a list of top-tier suppliers.
In other words, the Air Force has already told our enemies what each plane costs, what it looks like, and who is making its most important components. All of this would seem to be more useful information for a foreign intelligence agency than the overall contract value.
Moreover, the B-21’s budget has been unclassified since its inception. I know of no other program where the budget is unclassified, but the contract award value is not disclosed. There is simply no excuse for this unprecedented concealment of information about how American taxpayer dollars are being spent.
And it’s all the more concerning because of the Air Force’s terrible history of cost overruns in its bomber programs. The cost of the B-1 doubled. The B-2 was so expensive that only 21 aircraft were purchased at over $2 billion a piece. The Next Generation Bomber was cancelled due to excessive cost and schedule risk. We cannot afford another bomber blunder.
Releasing the total contract award value would not reveal anything about the B-21’s capabilities. But it would reveal a lot to the taxpayer about the cost, schedule, and performance of this aircraft, about whether the vendor is living up to its promises, and about whether the Air Force is properly managing this program.
Congress may not have required the Air Force to release the B-21 total contract award value in this year’s NDAA. But nothing is stopping the Air Force from releasing it now. I urge Air Force leaders to act immediately, and do the right thing for transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility.