Senators Vote to Keep Secret the Price of America’s New Stealth Bomber
How much does a B-21 cost? No one will say …
by DAN GRAZIER
The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee issued a severe blow to transparency and fiscal responsibility in May 2016. In a closed-door vote, the committee eliminated a requirement to disclose the development cost of the U.S. Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bomber.
Committee members voted 19 to seven to prevent the American people from knowing how much of their money will be sunk in this latest questionable weapons project.
Price estimates the Air Force has already released for the program should give taxpayers cause for concern. Last year, the Air Force told Congress the program would cost $33.1 billion. This year, the flying branch updated its estimate to $58.4 billion — an increase of $25 billion, or 76 percent.
The significant difference in the estimates has been attributed to “human error” by Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James, and we can’t help but worry that similar mistakes will flourish in the dark.
And an estimate is not the same as the actual contract value. The figures may vary significantly in this case because the Air Force is purchasing the B-21 with a cost-plus contract in which Northrop Grumman will be reimbursed for expenses it incurs during what is expected to be a long development process.
This is the information the senators voted to withhold from taxpayers.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, had included language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Air Force to release the dollar amount of the B-21’s engineering and manufacturing development — or Congress would withhold funds from the program.
“[T]he American people deserve to know how many of their hard-earned tax dollars will be spent in these initial phases as we embark on a major defense program expected to exceed $100 billion in total,” McCain wrote in a letter to James on March 10. He stood firm in his position, and was one of the seven senators to vote against the secrecy provision.
But the Air Force has resisted releasing the figure, claiming the contract price would allow potential adversaries to divine some of the new plane’s capabilities, such as its range and how many weapons it can carry.
Randall Walden, head of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, responded to McCain’s language with a letter stating there is a “strong correlation between the cost of an air vehicle and its total weight.”
As the Project on Government Oversight previously wrote, the Air Force’s argument against releasing the contract price is dubious, at best. Officials apparently felt no qualms about releasing an artist’s rendition of the proposed design.
They were also eager to announce where some of the plane’s subsystems will be built to begin the process of lining up political support to ensure its survival in future budget battles.
Any potential adversary sophisticated enough to figure out the plane’s weight based on the price would certainly be able to learn much more about the plane’s capabilities and how it might perform based on the contractor information the Air Force has chosen to release.
I learned a great deal about how the plane will come together after only an hour of Googling.
The American people need to know the contract price to hold those in charge accountable. We applaud Senators McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, Dan Sullivan, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz for opposing the effort to keep this information from the public.
Unfortunately, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, was successful in keeping the cost info secret, garnering the support of Senators James Inhofe, Jeff Sessions, Roger Wicker, Deb Fischer, Mike Rounds, Thom Tillis, Mike Lee, Jack Reed, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal, Joe Donnelly, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Angus King and Martin Heinrich.
Defense contractors have a long history of underbidding in order to win contracts. This creates problems later when costs inevitably rise once reality asserts itself and it becomes clear the contractors can’t deliver on their promises.
United Technologies Corporation was caught low-balling in the 1980s, the company deliberately underbid for a contract building engines for F-15 and F-16 fighters. In 2013, a federal judge in Ohio ordered that company to pay $473 million under the False Claims Act.
Moreover, there are a number of large programs putting pressure on the Pentagon’s budget, and lawmakers make long-term budgeting decisions with the best information available. When Congress budgets using deliberately understated figures, it ends up approving more new programs than we can afford and creating severe problems down the road.
Later Congresses are then left to deal with busted budgets, all so a defense contractor could edge out the competition.
We are disappointed with the outcome of this vote, as much by the fact that there wasn’t bipartisan support for disclosure as by the effort to block transparency. National security and open government issues should not be political.