Sen. John McCain on Tuesday demanded the Air Force lift the “veil of secrecy” on certain aspects of the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber program.
The Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he wants more information before supporting the service’s $2 billion in additional research and development funding for the program as part of the fiscal 2018 budget request.
The funding level is an increase from $1.3 billion for the current year.
“It’s understandable to keep the B-21 specific warfighting capabilities classified, but it’s difficult to understand why you should keep other aspects of the program under the veil of secrecy,” McCain told Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Secretary Heather Wilson during a hearing of the panel.
“Don’t the American people deserve to understand more about what their dollars are being spent — such as $2 billion in RND money requested in this year’s budget?” McCain said.
The service leaders were testifying to outline their priorities for the spending plan beginning Oct. 1, along with “unfunded” requirements. The hearing marked Wilson’s first appearance since being confirmed as the service’s top civilian.
“Senator, we are very open with the appropriate committees and the Congress about exactly what we’re doing and what we’re spending it on,” she said.
McCain, a former Navy pilot, continued, “That’s not true, Madame Secretary. That is simply not true. The American people need to know if what’s going to spend $2 billion on what, an R&D? Does the Air Force plan on releasing any further details on the program? If so, when will you do so?”
Wilson reiterated the need to keep certain aspects of the acquisition effort out of the public eye, but McCain was clearly frustrated at the level of the precaution. “I’ve never seen anything like this one,” he said.
Wilson and Goldfein also confirmed that the service is requesting, “100 B-21s, 165 total bombers in the Air Force,” in an effort to quell confusion over the projected size of the future bomber fleet.
Military.com on Monday reported the discrepancy in the figures — which stemmed from comments other Air Force officials made two weeks ago at a congressional hearing.
As to McCain’s point, the Air Force has defended its decision to keep secret many details about its program to spend more than $55 billion to acquire 100 of the next-generation stealth bombers.
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon, in March said officials will be tight lipped on the program going forward.
“With where we’re at today, I don’t see releasing anymore details for a period of time. We’ve been very open so far,” he said of the Raider, named in honor of the World War II-era Doolittle Raiders.
“It’s a balance … of transparency so that people understand what we’re trying to do with making sure we don’t release too much information so that potential adversaries could get an advantage,” he said.
Yet Bunch said the service made a mistake by being so tight-lipped on the B-2 Spirit program and doesn’t want to repeat those mistakes with the B-21 Raider.
The B-2, conceived under the Advanced Technology Bomber, or ATB, in the late 1970s saw a series of redesign work that delayed the program by more than two years and cost taxpayers millions more dollars during production. The stealth bomber, made by Northrop Grumman Corp., was first publicly displayed on Nov. 22, 1988.
This time around with the B-21, also being developed by Northrop, the Air Force wants to do things differently but not necessarily tip its hand, Bunch said at the time.
“We have to do better, but we can’t go too far,” he said.