How Senators Quietly Voted to Keep Bomber Costs Secret

Critics say public may never know how much is spent on B-21 program

Arizona Sen. John McCain criticized Air Force generals at a March Senate hearing for not publicly disclosing the cost of the B-21 program. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted behind closed doors last month to bar public disclosure of the cost of a major new contract to build America’s latest stealth bomber.   

At issue before the committee was how much the American people — and potential adversaries — should know about the price of one of the most expensive and important new programs in the U.S. arsenal.  

The 19-7 vote in favor of secrecy at the markup of the defense authorization bill was a sharp rebuke to Armed Services Chairman John McCain . The Arizona Republican had written the bill (S 2943 ) to require public disclosure of the value of the contract, which the Air Force had signed with Northrop Grumman Corp. last October  to develop and build the first 21 of a planned 100 B-21 bombers.   

An irate McCain had lambasted Air Force generals about the secrecy at a March Armed Services subcommittee hearing . “You're not serving the nation and the taxpayers if they don't know how much of their taxpayer dollars are being spent,” he said.  

[ Experts Set Off Alarms Over McCain's Defense Acquisition Overhaul ]  

More than two months later, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson  led the committee’s resistance to McCain on this issue during the markup, Nelson confirmed to CQ Roll Call in a brief interview.  

During a robust committee debate, Nelson said the Air Force was right in arguing that disclosure of the bid value would give away too much data to U.S. adversaries about the plane’s capabilities. Under Nelson’s amendment, now part of the bill, the contract cost figure must only be delivered in classified briefings to the congressional defense committees.  

“I don’t want to give our enemies information by which they can figure out” the weight and materials of the plane, Nelson later told CQ Roll Call.

Minimizing sticker shock?

The Senate will debate the authorization bill when members return Monday from their Memorial Day recess.  

The Senate committee’s action, combined with others on Capitol Hill this month, could reduce the odds the public will ever learn how much of its money is spent on the program, critics say.  

[ Wide Political Fallout Expected From Massive Nuclear Bomber Deal ]  

The cost of the initial B-21 aircraft contract is not the only cost figure in the program that remains secret. The total program cost is something of a mystery, too.  

More precisely, the Air Force has yet to disclose the total cost to acquire all 100 planes in the same way other major programs typically do, including other highly classified ones: with inflation included in the total — so-called then-year dollars.  

Most press reports on the B-21 program refer to it as an $80 billion program. The stories typically do not note that the estimate is in fixed fiscal 2016 dollars and does not include the likely inflation in the years in which the planes would be bought.  

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, for example, must report to Congress in so-called Selected Acquisition Reports its estimated cost in both then-year and base-year dollars. Most published accounts refer to the F-35 initiative as a $379 billion program in then-year dollars — not a $313 billion program (using fiscal 2012 dollars). There is no Selected Acquisition Report for the B-21.  

[ Official Claims 'No Elevated Risk' To F-35 Pilots, Despite Evidence to Contrary ]  

Experts expect that the B-21 program will cost well in excess of $100 billion  to acquire in then-year dollars. But the Air Force has not provided enough details to give taxpayers a complete and accurate estimate. Some observers suspect the service is trying to keep the lowest possible numbers in the public realm to avoid sticker shock.  

By contrast to the Air Force’s approach on the B-21, the service has given out the estimated acquisition cost in then-year dollars for its new nuclear cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff weapon, even though it, like the bomber, is an acknowledged special access program — a clandestine effort whose existence is nonetheless known. The cruise missile program, estimated to cost about $8.3 billion, is early in development.  

The service has provided some smaller cost numbers for the B-21 program, but these are subsets of the total, such as the development cost in deflated dollars or the average procurement price per plane in deflated dollars.  

Despite having released major cost figures like these, Air Force officials have argued that public disclosure of either the initial contract’s value or the total program cost in then-year dollars would enable potential adversaries to infer information about the plane’s weight, payload and other attributes.  

Some budget experts agree with McCain that disclosing some cost figures but not others is hard to understand or defend.  

"Given how much the information the Air Force has already released about the value of the contract and the estimated average cost of each plane, coupled with what the Pentagon has released regarding the overall cost of nuclear modernization through 2040, it's puzzling that there is such opposition to publicly releasing the value of the EMD contract award for the bomber” or “the total estimated acquisition cost for the B-21 program in then-year dollars,” said Kingston Reif, a defense expert with the Arms Control Association. EMD refers to the final stage of development: so-called engineering and manufacturing development.

Security vs. Transparency

Still, most senators on Armed Services accepted the Air Force’s argument that disclosure of a dollar figure or two could give U.S. adversaries too much information about the plane. All 12 committee Democrats, plus seven Republicans, backed Nelson in the vote on his amendment.  

The Defense Department “asserted that disclosure as requested would provide information to our adversaries about the capabilities of the aircraft,” said Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions , who voted against public disclosure.  

[ Trump Says He'd Consider Jeff Sessions for VP ]  

The vote was held in closed session, but the results were published days afterward in the committee report accompanying its bill.  

The House Armed Services Committee, by contrast, marks up its companion authorization bill in public each year.  

When the House debated the fiscal 2017 version of that measure (HR 4909 ) last month, the chamber adopted by voice vote an amendment by Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer  that would require disclosure of the total B-21 program acquisition cost — not just the first contract’s value.  

However, Blumenauer’s amendment says nothing about then-year dollars and would not require that the information be provided to Congress in unclassified form. So it appears there is nothing as yet that would prevent the Air Force from continuing to deliver the data only in secret briefings that members and staff are forbidden to talk about publicly.  

In fact, if the Senate provision becomes law, it might codify the secrecy.  

Sessions predicted the debate will recur in the House-Senate conference that will produce a final version of the legislation.  

“Maybe by then we’ll all be more focused on the details of it,” Sessions said.   

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.