House and Senate negotiators writing a final defense authorization bill quietly deleted or diluted tough provisions affecting the Air Force’s B-21 Raider bomber program at the behest of the main contractor, the chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee told CQ Roll Call.
The conferees stripped the bill of requirements that passed both chambers to disclose the bomber program's price tag, at least in a classified form. More importantly, they removed Senate-passed provisions spelling out consequences if the program fails to meet cost goals.
As a result, one of the most expensive and important U.S. government programs in the coming decade will continue to be overseen mostly outside of public view and without the usual statutory consequences for overruns, experts said.
The Senate voted Dec. 8 to clear the defense authorization measure for the president’s signature. The changes to the B-21 provisions made by conferees, which have not been previously reported in the press, were vocally endorsed by the aircraft's manufacturer, Northrop Grumman Corp., a top campaign contributor to members of Congress who oversee the Pentagon, according to Armed Services Chairman John McCain.
“It’s a testimony again to the clout of the industry in the Congress,” the Arizona Republican said in a brief interview. Northrop Grumman was “a big influence,” he said. “It’s absolutely unconscionable.”
Randy Belote, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, declined to comment other than to say that the Air Force secretary has said the program is proceeding according to plan.
Leading defense experts believe that developing and procuring 100 B-21s, the minimum amount now planned, will cost more than $100 billion.
But no one knows for sure how much the government thinks the program will cost, because the Air Force has succeeded in staving off calls from some lawmakers to make public either the cost of the initial contract with Northrop Grumman or the total projected cost of the program.
The B-21 is a secretive Special Access Program, but its existence is acknowledged.
Disclosing the full B-21 program cost or the value of the first contract will enable U.S. adversaries to deduce facts about the plane’s attributes, the Air Force says.
Despite that argument, the Air Force has surprised some defense experts by revealing other arguably sensitive information about the otherwise secretive program, including the identities of the top subcontractors.
Air Force officials also have made public subsets of the total cost picture. They have disclosed the procurement cost per plane (leaving out research and development costs). Sometimes their estimates include inflation’s effects, sometimes not.
They have disclosed the amount of money devoted in the open budget to development of the jet, but just over the next five years.
Other acknowledged Special Access Programs, including the Air Force’s new nuclear cruise missile, publicly state their total costs, experts say. Ditto for programs like the F-35 fighter jet.
By contrast, the Air Force has designated the B-21 a special kind of acquisition program, executed by a super-secret Rapid Capability Office. The Pentagon has exempted the program from the usual acquisition rules, including a requirement that big enough cost overruns can lead to program terminations.
"This is an experiment, a test case," Jeremiah Gertler, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, told CQ. "It's the first time rapid acquisition has been applied to a major defense acquisition program."
Steven Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which monitors government spending, said the Air Force is trying to avoid accountability for the kind of cost overruns that have plagued the F-35 and F-22 fighter jet programs and the B-2 bomber.
“They’re playing hide the ball from the taxpayers,” Ellis told CQ Roll Call. “This is more about embarrassment than any national security issue.”
McCain holds a similar view.
“Disclosing the contract award value would not reveal anything about the B-21's capabilities,” McCain told CQ Roll Call. “But it would reveal a lot to taxpayers about the cost, schedule and performance of this aircraft, about whether the vendor is living up to its promises, and about whether the Air Force is properly managing this program. That is why next year I will press again to force public disclosure of the B-21 contract award value."
McCain originally drafted the Senate Armed Services authorization bill — known as the NDAA — so that it would require public disclosure of the value of Northrop Grumman’s contract for full-scale development of the bomber and production of the first 21 planes.
But the Senate committee overruled its chairman and voted in May — during a closed markup — to keep the contract from public view and instead ensure all communications about cost remain secret.
Some in Washington believe this is the kind of decision that would be less likely to occur if the Senate Armed Services markups were open — something McCain supported before he became chairman but now opposes.
“This is a perfect example of how a closed-door NDAA allows for bad policy to thrive without accountability,” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, told CQ.
When the House debated its own version of the NDAA (HR 4909) in May, it adopted by voice vote an amendment by Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer that largely mirrored McCain’s cost-disclosure proposal. The House-passed amendment would have required the Pentagon to give Congress the total program cost, although the language did not require that the disclosure be unclassified.
The Air Force and contractor cost estimates are known to members and aides cleared to get the information through classified channels. But they cannot discuss the figures publicly.
By not requiring open disclosure of the program’s cost estimates, the two bills had effectively maintained the status quo of secret B-21 oversight.
Yet both chambers had at least called for B-21 cost reporting, even if it would be secret and not changed a thing.
Nonetheless, rather than reconcile the two cost-reporting provisions, as conferences normally do, the conferees jettisoned both.
“At a time when the Pentagon appears to be wasting $125 billion of its already over-padded budget, we clearly need cost accountability for defense programs like the B-21 bomber,” Blumenauer told CQ. “It’s frustrating that a full cost estimate requirement wasn’t included in the final bill, especially since this proposal had bipartisan support.”
The failure to require any open disclosure of costs was a victory for the Air Force and Northrop Grumman. But their main concern heading into the conference, aides said, was to take out Senate-passed provisions that would make the B-21 program play by the same acquisition rules — and face the same consequences — as other major defense programs.
The Senate bill would have instituted consequences for failure to meet cost targets as the program got underway — including potentially killing the initiative, the same rules most other programs play by.
Instead, Northrop Grumman's lobbyists won. Now the bill requires regular reporting — to both the defense committees and the Government Accountability Office — on how the initial contract is going, including on meeting cost targets. But there is no requirement that this reporting occur anywhere outside of classified settings. And, most crucially, there are no longer serious consequences spelled out in the law for failure to meet those goals.