WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is still working through the details of a contract award for the next-generation bomber, and expects an announcement on the final downselect in the next few months.
“My hope is within the next couple of months, but we still have details that we still haven’t worked through,” Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary of acquisition, said on Tuesday in response to questions on the timing of the contract announcement from House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va.
Bunch’s remarks come as a surprise to some in the aerospace community, who had expected a contract award for the Long Range Strike Bomber first this summer, then early fall, and most recently in mid-October. The Pentagon is still deciding between proposals from Northrop Grumman, builder of the B-2 stealth bomber, and a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team.
“This is the case, sir, where we need to go slow to go fast. We’ve got a fair, deliberate, disciplined and impartial process,” Bunch said during a hearing before the subcommittee. “This is not schedule driven, it is fact and precision point driven.”
The six-month delay in awarding the contract has already prompted lawmakers to cut $460 million from the program in fiscal 2016, Forbes said during the hearing. The Air Force stands to lose $100 million for each additional month the announcement is delayed, one congressional source said.
The Pentagon is planning to procure 80-100 LRS-Bs to replace the Air Force’s aging B-1 and B-52 bombers. Initial operating capability is slated for the mid-2020s, with nuclear certification planned two years after that.
However, lawmakers expressed concern during the hearing that 80-100 LRS-Bs is insufficient to replace the current fleet. The Air Force has 159 bombers in inventory today: 76 B-52s, 63 B-1s and 20 B-2s.
Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said Tuesday the Pentagon may reconsider the planned buy as the threat environment evolves.
“We haven’t firmed that up yet,” Rand said during the hearing. “We currently have 159 bombers of which 96 are combat-coded — I certainly can’t imagine a situation where we would need less than that.”
It is “premature” to have a discussion right now on the number of LRS-Bs the Air Force needs in the future, Rand said. The existing bomber fleet will help “augment” the LRS-B for many decades, he noted.
“As we get the LRS-B in production, procure them and start fielding them, we will have to have a very healthy discussion of the requirement,” Rand said.