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Why The B-52 Got $11.9 Billion

When the Air Force announced an $11.9 billion sustainment contract to Boeing last week for the venerable and enduring B-52 eyebrows shot up along the Potomac, especially on Capitol Hill.

It appeared to provide roughly $127 million per airplane spread out over eight years, one hell of a lot of money for a plane that originally cost $9.3 million in  1955 (somewhere around $76 million per in current dollars). So we checked with the Air Force to get some details on just what was happening and why.

Congressional aides were flabbergasted by the contract, for which no money has been authorized and almost none obligated. When I shared the Air Force response with some congressional aides they were not happy since I got an answer more quickly than they did. One of them put it this way: "I can’t validate or comment yet on what you’ve been given, other than the fact that it’s “ops normal” on how the Pentagon chooses to interact and engage with the Hill." (There were also a few choice words about how "dysfunctional" the legislative affairs office at the Pentagon is, but we won't go into that.)

Here are the details on the B-52 deal. It's an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity  (IDIQ) contract. The amount is "based on estimated costs derived from current activities and in-house estimates for future projected support requirements for B-52 modernization." In an interesting approach, the Air Force gave the contract a "sufficient ceiling” for “programs critical to maintaining B-52 mission capability as funding is appropriated and authorized." That may allay some of the concerns on the Hill about the deal.

While it is an astonishing amount of money, almost nothing is actually being spent so far. "No funds were obligated with the award of the basic IDIQ contract, but the basic contract contains a $600,000 minimum order quantity provision," Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller said in an email. That was the first payment for a $2.3 million order of 16 Evolutionary Data Link (EDL) Phase III kits" and some "basic engineering support through 29 Feb 12."

On top of that tiny sum, the contract should also pay for "Combat Networks Communication Technology (CONECT) production, Extremely High Frequency (EHF) engineering development and production, Strategic Radar Replacement development and production, Tactical Data Link engineering studies, MIL-STD-1760 Internal Weapons Bay production, trade studies, and other programs critical to maintaining B-52 mission capability out to the year 2040."

Given the amount of the contract I thought there might be some re-engining or fuselage work. Not so, says Miller. It could, of course, be done under the contract "if authorized and funded," he noted.

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