William LaPlante, assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, said the request for proposals for the long-range strike bomber will come in a matter of days. (Staff Sgt. Carlin Lesl / Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The request for proposal (RFP) on the Air Force’s long range strike-bomber program will be issued soon, perhaps in a matter of days, according to the service’s top civil acquisitions official.
“That program is in a competitive phase,” William LaPlante, assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, said during a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Friday. “We’re probably days away from releasing the final RFP for that program.”
Asked to clarify the timetable for the contract award, LaPlante indicated the award date was set for the first half of 2015.
“There’s no magic, I’ll just tell you how the timeline works,” he told reporters. “If you do an RFP now, then you get proposals in in the fall and you evaluate them. You can imagine that being done sometime in the early part of 2015. Is that April? Is that January? I don’t know.”
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James had previously indicated an RFP would likely be issued in the fall.
The Air Force seeks to procure 80 to 100 long-range bombers. The program, one of the big three recapitalization programs the Air Force has focused on protecting in the budget, has largely been shrouded in secrecy.
Only some basic information has been made public: The service has a mid-2020s operational date in mind; the plane will be based on existing technologies; there will be room for a large payload; and the service is at least exploring making the bomber optionally-manned. The bomber is also designed to fit into a “family of systems” that ties in ISR, electronic attack and communication systems.
LaPlante shed some more light on the program during his speech.
“That program is designed around a fixed set of requirements [with] relatively mature technologies, [where we will] build the first version knowing it won’t have everything on it that we want or will want,” he said. “We’re building an adaptable approach with an open architecture, [with] places on the wings that allow us to customize sensors and weapons with future capabilities.
“In other words, anticipate what we did, for example, with an F-16 where you look inside an F-16 today and it’s nothing like an F-16 when it first came out. Let’s build a truly block approach, make it adaptable. Let’s not fall into the trap that we fall into too often which is try to put so much into the first version.”
The big question on the bomber has always been cost. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates set a target cost of $550 million per copy, but analysts have been quick to note that figure does not include a limit on how much can be spent in research and development.
Critics of the program also point out that the $550 million figure is now being discussed more as a guideline than a firm target, while under Gates it was discussed in the press as a cap. However, LaPlante pointed out that the figure was only ever a target to aim for with the current 80 to 100 plane procurement estimate.
“If later on we decide to buy 200 bombers, or we decide to buy 50, the [figure] will change,” LaPlante said. “But you have to give the designers something at the beginning to hold their feet to the fire.”
He did confirm there is a cost target for what is spent in research and development, but declined to say what it was.
Given the paucity of multibillion-dollar contracts, it is no surprise that some of the largest defense companies in the world are vying for a piece of the pie.
The team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing are hoping to defeat Northrop Grumman on the contract. Asked to respond to LaPlante’s comments, Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher wrote in an email: “We look forward to competing for this program, and having the opportunity to continue our decades-long partnership with the Air Force.”
“Northrop Grumman’s design and production of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the bomber most recently produced by the US Air Force, positions it well for the [bomber] program,” company spokesman Randy Belote wrote. “We are very interested in working with the Air Force to provide this critical capability for the nation.”
While Lockheed can bring its experience with new technologies and Boeing has its construction capabilities, Northrop is betting on its experience with the B-2 stealth bomber to carry it over the line. The company was recently awarded an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract with a ceiling of $9.9 billion for work on the B-2 over the next decade.