The U.S. Air Force blamed mistaken cost estimates for the new bomber program -- one of the most closely watched defense acquisition efforts underway -- in part on "human error."
As Bloomberg News reporter Tony Capaccio noted in a question to officials this week during a "State of the Air Force" briefing at the Pentagon, the service this year estimated the so-called Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRSB, would cost $58 billion over a decade, up from a previous estimate of just $33 billion -- though the correct figure is closer to $42 billion.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the following about the discrepancy.
"There has been no change in the costing factors over the last two years," she said. "It was a mistake. It was a regrettable mistake. It occurred in part because of human error and in part because of process error, meaning a couple of our people got the figures wrong and the process of coordination was not fully carried out in this case. Coordination, of course, means other people are providing a check and balance and looking at the numbers, so that's typically how something like this would get caught."
She added, "So we've counseled the people, we've tightened up the process. It's been corrected with the Congress. The key thing is there has been no change in those cost figures and we regret the error.
She and other Air Force officials have long said the next-generation bomber is an acquisition priority, along with a handful of others, including F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the KC-46A refueling tanker; the combat rescue helicopter; joint surveillance target attack radar system replacement; and the T-X trainer.
The service wants to buy between 80 and 100 new bombers at no more than $550 million apiece to replace its aging fleet of B-52 Stratofortresses made by Boeing Co. and a least a portion of its B-1 fleet.
A team led by Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the B-2 bomber, is competing against another headed by Boeing Co., the world's largest aerospace company, and Lockheed Martin Corp., the world's largest defense contractor.
Northrop, which arguably has the most to lose of any of the competitors, has launched an advertising blitz for its new strategic bomber, from a Super Bowl commercial to print advertisements in general interest and trade publications to posters in the D.C. subway system. If it doesn't win the contract, it would probably become an acquisition target in a major consolidation of the U.S. defense industry.
The Air Force was expected to announce a winner this spring or summer, though James said a decision will be made "soon."
"The Long-Range Strike Bomber contract will be awarded soon," she said. "We will do it when we are ready. The key thing is to make sure that we are doing it correctly, and so that's why -- that is what we're doing, is making sure that we get this done correctly. So that's point number 1."