WASHINGTON — On the heels of a government watchdog's decision to let Northrop Grumman move forward with development of the US Air Force’s Long Range Strike-Bomber, the service plans to release additional details about the secretive program in March.
The Air Force will unveil previously undisclosed information about its next-generation bomber sometime in the coming weeks, likely in the first week of March, said Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, Feb. 18 during an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute.
Talking to reporters after the event, Holmes declined to give specifics about exactly what information the Air Force plans to roll out.
“I’m not going to get in the way of the Secretary and the Chief there, but we will see,” Holmes said. “It depends on the classification level, it depends on exactly what we want to reveal about the airplane at this point, and we will be careful about what we reveal about the airplane at this point.”
The GAO’s Feb. 16 decision to deny Boeing’s protest of the Air Force’s award of LRS-B to Northrop ended months of speculation about who would build the new bomber. But questions remain about the Air Force’s plan to move forward with the costly plane.
The Air Force still has not released crucial details about the bomber itself, including the value of the contract awarded to Northrop Oct. 27 for engineering, manufacturing and development. The LRS-B’s size, weight and payload remain unknowns, as do the extent of its stealth capabilities. Top officials also declined to say what companies will build key components of the aircraft, though it is likely Pratt & Whitney will develop the engine.
During Holmes’ presentation, retired Gen. John Michael Loh, who served as the chief of Air Combat Command, criticized the Air Force’s lack of transparency on LRS-B. Loh urged the Air Force to release additional details, particularly the members of the industry team that will build the next-generation bomber, in order to drum up support for the costly program on Capitol Hill and in the public eye.
“You are going to have to fight for LRS-B every day, every week, every month, every year, because there are people out there that are going to try to kill it, they are all over this town,” Loh said. “The sooner the Air Force can release the team, the industry team on LRS-B, the more support you are going to get. If you don’t do that, it isn’t going to survive.”
Loh said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh assured him the service would release additional details about the program once the Government Accountability Office ruled on Boeing’s protest of the contract award.
“If you want congressional support, if you want industry support, you’ve got to get that thing out there and you cant let the RCO run the security on it,” Loh said, referring to the Rapid Capabilities Office, a small Air Force acquisitions group that handles secretive programs.
The service and industry team had hit pause on the LRS-B program after Boeing and partner Lockheed filed a bid protest with the GAO Nov. 6 over the award to Northrop. But with the GAO’s recent decision to deny Boeing’s protest, Northrop and the Air Force can move forward with engineering and development work, in anticipation of a tentative 2025 date for reaching initial operating capability.
“This confirms that the U.S. Air Force conducted an extraordinarily thorough selection process and selected the most capable and affordable solution,” according to a statement by Randy Belote, Northrop vice president of strategic communications.
The Air Force allotted about $12.1 billion in research, development, test and evaluation funds for LRS-B over the next five years, according to the service’s fiscal 2017 budget request. This figure is about $3.5 billion less than the Air Force had planned for last year, a delta that reflects an updated cost estimate since the service awarded Northrop the contract.
Boeing will review the GAO’s decision and decide on its next step in the coming days, according to a company statement following the announcement. GAO decisions cannot be appealed, but Boeing can choose to bring its case before the US Court of Federal Claims.
“We continue to believe that our offering represents the best solution for the Air Force and the nation, and that the government’s selection process was fundamentally and irreparably flawed,” the Boeing statement reads.
At the time the protest was filed, Boeing and Lockheed called the selection process for the LRS-B “fundamentally flawed” in a joint statement, taking issue specifically with the cost evaluation performed by the government. But the companies faced long odds of a successful protest. As a recent annual report on the defense acquisition system noted, only around 2 percent of defense protests were actually upheld in 2013, the last year data was available. This rate is lower than the overall federal rate for that year, which was just under 4 percent.
Additionally, the Air Force, clearly eager to avoid a repeat of the decade-long tanker saga when a Boeing protest eventually reversed the original award to Airbus, took great pains to insulate the LRS-B award.