Former Official Describes Secret U.S. Bomber Acquisition

 - September 20, 2013, 11:40 AM
Boeing produced this concept drawing of the Next Generation Bomber in 2009. The program has since morphed into LRS-B (Image: Boeing)

Contractors are working on risk-reduction contracts for the secretive and stealthy long-range strike-bomber (LRS-B) program, the former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for acquisition disclosed. During a panel discussion at the Air Force Association (AFA) Air and Space Conference near Washington, D.C, on September 17, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford said the contracts serve as a technology “bridge” to the future bomber following the cancellation of the Next Generation Bomber (NGB) program in 2009. The Pentagon has instructed contractors not to discuss the LRS-B program, one of the USAF’s top three acquisition priorities.

Shackelford also offered contractors some advice on how the acquisition will unfold. He said that the LRS-B requirement will be “couched as integration, not innovation” in the eventual request for proposals. There will be a set of requirements that contractors must achieve, “with some room to move beyond threshold requirements.” There will also be an “affordability figure,” he said, adding that the $550 million unit cost referenced in the DOD budget documents “is a popular figure” at the moment. The program will offer contractors incentives “tied to tangible performance” instead of basing incentives on achieving contract milestones.

Since the DOD will be cost-constrained, Shackelford said, it will look favorably on contractors that reduce technology risks without expecting the government to pay the bill. There is evidence from other acquisitions that “he who invests improves his likelihood of winning,” he said.

Shackelford participated in a panel discussion titled “The New Face of Long-Range Strike in the 21st Century.” At the same AFA conference, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh reiterated that the service is prioritizing the LRS-B acquisition, along with the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and the Boeing KC-46 tanker. The LRS-B “is another mandatory recapitalization program for us. We don’t have an option,” Welsh said. “Operationally we have to have it to be ready to fight a determined, well armed, well trained enemy in a high-end fight.”

The DOD plans to buy 80 to 100 of the future bombers. “As part of this effort, essential components of the bomber industrial base, such as low-observable technology, are being sustained with technology maturation efforts,” the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) reported in May. The Air Force’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget submission “includes funding to continue the development of an affordable, long-range and penetrating aircraft that incorporates proven technologies,” according to the DOD. Through Fiscal Year 2018, the department is seeking $8.8 billion for the LRS-B development program.