WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is in the final phase of discussion before awarding a contract for the next-generation bomber, and expects an announcement very soon.
"We’re in the final closing phase and it’s going well and you should expect to hear something pretty soon," William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said during an event hosted by Defense One on Tuesday.
Even if the Pentagon is forced to operate under a yearlong continuing resolution, the Air Force will proceed with the contract award for the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) on schedule, he noted.
Industry is still holding its breath for the long-delayed contract, which could come anytime in the next few months. The Pentagon had planned to make the decision on who will build the Air Force’s new bomber fleet first this summer, then early fall. Most recently, one Air Force official estimated the announcement sometime in the next few months.
The Pentagon is still studying whether to go with a proposal from Northrop Grumman, builder of the B-2 stealth bomber, or a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team.
The Pentagon is drawing lessons learned from the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics A-12 Avenger II, an all-weather, carrier-based stealth bomber planned for the Navy and Marine Corps, according to acquisition chief Frank Kendall. The program was beset by cost overruns and major delays, which led to its cancellation in 1991.
The A-12 is a perfect example of a "black," or classified, program that went very wrong, Kendall said. The Pentagon had a "bad business arrangement" for the program, he said: The two contractors were teamed for development of the aircraft, with the idea that they would then compete for the production contract. At the same time, the companies struggled to build the technology needed for the state-of-the-art aircraft.
The A-12 program and its cancellation led to a ban on fixed-price development contracts, Kendall said.
"It was sort of a perfect storm of things that we should not have done," Kendall said.
The Pentagon is taking measures to ensure the LRS-B program does not go the way of A-12 by focusing , with a focus on using mature technologies rather than launching new developments. The program is also unusually advanced in terms of design and testing; the Air Force already has two robust prototypes in hand.