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Senators Slam Pentagon Officials Over Faulty Bomber Estimates

The leaders of the Senate Armed Service Committee blasted Pentagon officials over major discrepancies in recent cost estimates for the Air Force's new bomber program.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the panel, and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the ranking member of the committee, on Monday said they sent a letter last week to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to air their grievances about the matter.

In their letter, the lawmakers noted that a report accompanying the Pentagon's fiscal 2016 budget request estimated the so-called Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, would cost $58.4 billion over a decade, up from the previous year's estimate of $33.1 billion -- though the current figure is now $41.7 billion.

"Such dramatic discrepancies in the long-term cost estimation for the LRS-B program are difficult to understand, and unfortunately do not inspire confidence about the Department's management of this important acquisition program," they wrote.

They asked the Pentagon to deliver updated reports with correct cost estimates, a line-item accounting of the elements used to estimate the program costs, an explanation for the 21-percent increase in the year-over-year estimate, an explanation for why the current estimate doesn't include an inflation-adjusted cost increase, an explanation of how the error occurred, and an assessment of the department's ability to appropriate fund the program.

"The LRS-B program is one of the Department’s most important and most expensive acquisition priorities," McCain and Reed wrote. "For Congress to fulfill its proper oversight responsibilities and appropriate scarce taxpayer dollars to this and other defense programs, it is imperative that we receive the most accurate information possible.  To commit administrative errors amounting to tens of billions of dollars is simply unacceptable.  It cannot, and should not, be tolerated by either members of Congress or our defense leaders."

Air Force officials last week blamed mistaken cost estimates for the new bomber program — one of the most closely watched defense acquisition efforts underway — in part on "human error."

"There has been no change in the costing factors over the last two years," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James 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."

The Air Force has identified the LRS-B as one of its top acquisition programs. 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.

A contract announcement is expected this month, sources told in recent weeks.

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