As Washington eagerly awaits news of a winner for the new bomber development contract, the U.S. Air Force’s covert project is further along than officials have let on, with years worth of risk-reduction work already done.
The Air Force began to hint at this secretive history in a Sept. 1 Pentagon briefing to think tankers outlining a program rooted in negotiations with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that fundamentally shaped an atypical acquisition approach to this effort.
This appears to be the beginning of an unusually savvy communications strategy by the Air Force leading up to an announcement that could come in days, or possibly weeks, on which team will build the Long-Range Strike Bomber –or / . It could also be a response to some that suggest its unconventional approach was an indictment of the service’s acquisition corps, which made major missteps in program management in the last decade.
In the 2-hr. briefing, the Air Force outlined a few key points about the procurement strategy behind what is expected to be an $80 billion-plus project to field 100 new, stealthy bombers. It was briefed under Chatham House Rules, meaning the information cannot be cited to a specific person. An Air Force spokesman present for the session declined to identify the briefer.
Only glimpses of the program were given. But they hint at a much more mature effort than previously stated and backed by government money doled out years ago to each team, meaning the forthcoming announcement of a development contract winner will not underpin a new-start program.
While Washington has been on the edge of its seat to discover which team will nab the contract, the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) has apparently been hard at work managing risk reduction with both contractors for the program since Gates issued a classified memo launching LRS-B in February 2011, according to a source briefed on the project.
Gates terminated the Next-Generation Bomber, the precursor to LRS-B. That earlier project was far more ambitious and expensive, in part because of the assumption that the aircraft would operate nearly independently, which drove requirements up. NGB would have needed to be capable of its own intelligence and other functions that LRS-B will get through support from a network of already fielded Air Force platforms. Ever skeptical of high-tech promises, Gates restarted the project with a lower-cost, reduced-risk approach. This decision was made as the F-35 was struggling with major cost and technical issues, prompting skepticism from Pentagon leaders.
This likely led to the choice of the RCO as the procurement overseer, bypassing the Air Force’s standard acquisition corps, which is typically used to manage fighter, bomber and weapons programs. The RCO reports to a board of directors chaired by Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall; Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and service acquisition head William LaPlante are also on the board. With Kendall as head, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has unusually deep insight into the ins and outs of the project, perhaps a strategy backed by Gates by design to guard against requirements creep.
Because the RCO is designed to quickly integrate and field technologies, it is often closer to the art of the available than other procurement agents may be. It is also, most likely, briefed on available classified technologies, potentially to include the classified work behind the RQ-180 intelligence aircraft built by Northrop Grumman for intelligence collection. This stealthy, penetrating spy aircraft likely will work hand-in-hand with LRS-B to collect and relay intelligence and bomb damage assessments on missions in protected airspace.
At the time the RCO was chosen, the service’s procurement corps was saddled with criticism for missteps in buying both a KC-135 and HH-60G replacement, so it could have been a political move to insulate LRS-B from similar scrutiny. The office was established in 2003 to quickly upgrade the air defense system protecting Washington after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is led by Randall Walden (who formerly oversaw procurement of intelligence aircraft such as the U-2,and Reaper).
Since the 2011 Gates memo, both contractor teams have received risk-reduction funds for specific areas thought by the RCO to be the most risky, including integration of the propulsion system onto the aircraft and antenna design, a key challenge for any stealthy aircraft that is intolerant of protruding communications nodes, the source said. An Air Force spokesman declined to say how much money has been provided, but he confirmed both teams are funded. The briefer at the think tank meeting cited some wind tunnel testing, but no details on what was tested – subscale models, full demonstrators, subsystems – were provided. One source suggests the teams are already past the preliminary design review phase of the project, “years farther along” than previously acknowledged by the Air Force.
The briefer indicated the bomber would be optionally manned, not a surprising design choice. The relatively large size of a heavy bomber means the size/weight/power penalty for a cockpit is fairly low. Also, service officials would want a piloted aircraft for testing, as unmanned testing is subject to thornier constraints. “Unmanning” the bomber by equipping it with proper command and control and software would be a relatively simple addition, and hooks are built in to do so if desired. But for the near term the bomber will be manned.