WASHINGTON — In a recent letter to the secretary of the Air Force, Sen. John McCain demanded the service release the value of the B-21 bomber development contract awarded to Northrop Grumman last year.

"This is a critical program for our nation's defense, and the American people deserve to know how many of their hard earned tax dollars will be spent in these initial phases as we embark on a major defense program expected to exceed $100 billion in total," the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a March 10 letter obtained by Defense News.

McCain, a frequent critic of the Air Force for F-35 cost overruns and the decision to retire the A-10, has hammered the service on plans for the B-21 long-range strike bomber. Most recently, McCain has slammed the Air Force's decision to keep the new bomber's cost under wraps.

"Why would you not want to tell the American people how you are going to spend their dollars?" McCain asked during a March 8 hearing of the Airland subcommittee, repeatedly interrupting Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary for acquisition. " Why shouldn't the average citizen know the cost of a whatever — how many tens of billions of dollars — $80 billion to $100 billion program? Shouldn't the taxpayers know that?"

Secretary Deborah Lee James, Bunch and other Air Force officials have defended the service's decision to keep the total value of the contract for B-21 engineering, manufacturing and development awarded to Northrop on Oct. 27. Bunch argued March 8 that the decision not to release the exact cost of the aircraft is an attempt to prevent hostile actors from connecting the dots to figure out classified details about the plane.

However, in the March 10 letter, McCain noted the Air Force has publicly listed the research and development funds for the bomber in the president's budget request each year since the program's inception in 2011.

"I certainly understand the necessity of protecting the bomber's specifications and capabilities in the interest of national security," McCain wrote in the letter. "While I commend these Air Force efforts to be more open and transparent with the B-21 bomber, as compared to the B-2 bomber program of the early 1990s, I believe this very approach obliges you to release the total contract award dollar amount."

In an effort to be more transparent, the Air Force has also named the seven major contractors who will joint Northrop in building the B-21, including the plane's engine-maker Pratt & Whitney.

Meanwhile, McCain has not backed down from his Feb. 25 threat to block the B-21 so long as it is procured as planned using a cost-plus contract.

Terminating 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.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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