Originally published at 6:47 PM EST on March 8, this story has been updated to reflect specific costs and schedule delays associated with terminating the B-21 contract.
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain is taking a new tack in his crusade against the Air Force’s B-21, slamming the service's decision to keep the new bomber’s cost under wraps.
“You are not serving the nation, the taxpayers, they don’t know how much of their taxpayer dollars are being spent,” McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, chided top Air Force officials during a March 8 hearing of the Airland subcommittee. “You and I have a very different view of our obligation to the taxpayers.”
McCain hammered Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, on the secrecy surrounding the B-21, which is expected to cost $100 billion over the life of the program. The American people have a right to know precisely how many of their dollars will go toward the bomber, McCain argued.
“Why would you not want to tell the American people how you are going to spend their dollars?” McCain asked, interrupting Bunch multiple times. “ Why shouldn’t the average citizen know the cost of a whatever — how many tens of billions of dollars — 80 to 100 billion dollar program? Shouldn’t the taxpayers know that?”
Bunch defended the Air Force’s decision to keep certain details about the B-21 classified, arguing that the decision not release the exact cost of the aircraft is an attempt to prevent hostile actors from connecting the dots.
The Air Force has released on Oct. 27 the independent cost estimate for the engineering, manufacturing and development contract awarded to Northrop Grumman, totaling $23.5 billion in fiscal 2016 dollars, Bunch noted. However, that number is higher than the actual value of the contract, a figure the service has not released.
McCain’s criticism took on almost a mocking tone at points, as he slammed Bunch’s explanation.
“Frankly I’ve never heard of this before, that they shouldn’t know how much their taxpayer [dollars] are being spent because somebody might connect the dots,” McCain said. “What is that all about?”
McCain’s criticism is the latest jab in a very public dispute between the Arizona Republican and the Air Force over the B-21.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hit back during a March 7 briefing at the Pentagon, warning of the cost in both dollars and time of terminating the contract.
“It is always possible to terminate a contract — you terminate, you pay fees to terminate, you can rebid it, which of course takes more money and time,” James said. “So these things are always possible. We certainly hope it won’t come to that.”
Breaking the contract would cost the Air Force over $300 million in penalties, Bunch told the subcommittee March 8. The Air Force would then have to re-compete the contract, which would take an additional 24 to 30 months and lead to a commensurate delay in fielding the aircraft, he added.
But James' and Bunch's warnings do not appear to have softened McCain’s resolve.
"I don't care what they say. The job of the United States Senate and Armed Services Committee is to authorize. That's our job,” McCain told Defense News on March 8 when asked to respond to James’ comments. “If she wants to do something unconstitutional, that's her problem, not mine.”
Top Air Force officials will continue to brief lawmakers on the B-21 in open and closed sessions on Capitol Hill, Bunch said March 8.
Joe Gould contributed reporting.