An influential congressman added his name to the growing list of members calling on the US Air Force to explain how the service managed to botch cost estimates for its next-generation bomber program two years in a row.
Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, told Defense News in a Wednesday night interview that his subcommittee will hammer the Air Force on the importance of accuracy and transparency when it comes to the Long Range Strike-Bomber program.
"I think it's going to be important that the Air Force get its numbers right," Forbes said. "The accuracy is going to be the most important thing because if you are not accurate, you are not going to sell these members on these platforms, because they are going to think you are not telling them the truth."
Forbes' remarks show the Air Force is still facing backlash after acknowledging massive discrepancies in 10-year cost estimates for LRS-B late last month. Senior Air Force leadership has since said the true cost estimate over a 10-year period should be $41.7 billion, rather than $33.1 billion for FY2015-2024, and blamed the inaccuracies primarily on human error.
The Air Force has said each plane will cost $550 million in 2010 dollars, and maintains that the recent errors will not impact affect the overall program price tag.
But if the Air Force can make a billon-dollar mistake on a routine cost estimate, why should the public have any faith the service will stick to the per-unit cost cap?
"That's a fair criticism. I think [the Air Force] would even view that as a fair criticism," Forbes said. "We're going to be very, very strong on the fact that we can't have that happen, we can't continue to go down that path."
But Forbes said he wants to give the Air Force a chance to explain the discrepancies before taking any measures that might delay a contract award.
"I just think that the first thing I should do is let them make their case and explain exactly why these discrepancies took place," Forbes said. "From there we will formulate a plan to make sure they don't continue."
His staff has asked for briefings from the Air Force on the errors, Forbes said, though these meetings have not yet been scheduled. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., have also demanded answers from the service.
Forbes' remarks came just hours after members and experts weighed in on the Air Force's bomber inventory needs during a Wednesday Sept. 9 hearing. Reps. Paul Cook, R-Calif., and Mike Conaway, R-Texas, also expressed concern about potential cost overrun on the LRS-B program, particularly given the history of ballooning budgets in the F-35 and B-2 efforts.
But despite fears that the LRS-B might bust its cost cap, experts agree on one thing: in the face of global threats like a resurgent Russia and expansionist China, recapitalizing the Air Force's bomber fleet should be a priority for national security.
In fact, witnesses retired Lt. Gen. Robert Elder Jr., Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, all stressed during their witness testimony that the Air Force's current plan to build 80-100 LRS-Bs falls far short. Today, the Air Force has 158 bombers altogether, — 63 B-1s, 20 B-2s and 76 B-52s, which average 39 years of age.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former deputy chief of staff for ISR, echoed these concerns during an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies on Thursday Sept. 10.
The Air Force actually needs to build 174 LRS-Bs overall, Deptula told reporters after the event. Deptula explained his calculation: Airmen need 12 combat-coded aircraft for each of 10 squadrons, plus another 30 — or 25 percent — dedicated to training and testing; on top of that, the service needs another 24 aircraft — or 20 percent — for backup and attrition reserve.
"What happens if we don't get a new bomber? If we don't get a new bomber, our adversary will hid and keep in sanctuary, hostile military capabilities like anti-satellite weapons, like potential weapons of mass destruction," Grant warned during the hearing. "And these capabilities will threaten our national security, and the world we live in, and we won't be able to do anything about it."