A secretive new stealth bomber in development by Northrop Grumman could fall in price if long-term trends hold, says the head of the US Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) on 18 September.
The USAF still refuses to reveal the value of the contract awarded to Northrop in February 2016 to develop the B-21 Raider, but committed to produce at least 100 bombers for $550 million each at 2010 currency values.
“I think we can achieve less than that based on what we’re executing today,” says Randall Walden, director and programme executive for the RCO, a small acquisition cell charged with managing the B-21 development programme.
Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates controversially removed the B-21 programme from the normal air force acquisition pipeline and put it in the hands of Walden’s organization, which traditionally managed much smaller efforts, such as the development and fielding of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 stealth reconnaissance mode.
So far, the move to bypass the normal acquisition system appears to be paying off. In an appearance on an “affordability” panel at the Air Force Association’s annual convention, Walden explained several reasons why he thinks the B-21 has avoided the cycle of cost increases and production cutbacks that devastated previous programmes, such as the Northrop B-2 and Lockheed F-22.
“The magic is the culture. It’s all about the mindset. Not only in the programme office but at the senior leadership level,” Walden says.
The RCO resides outside the USAF’s normal acquisition organization, but still complies with the same “5000-series” regulations that other programmes follow, Walden says. The difference is a cultural mindset that incentivizes quick decision-making and discourages cumbersome bureaucratic processes.
For models, the RCO used the 14 Rules developed by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who founded the Lockheed Skunk Works in 1943, which created a cell of engineers and machinists that worked closely together usually in secret to develop advanced new technologies, including the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. The small group of USAF officers that founded the National Reconnaissance Office to develop a series of successful spy satellites also served as a model, Walden says.
The B-21 still has a long development process ahead. The programme recently completed a preliminary design review, and now the emphasis is on completing engineering drawings and building the first parts, Walden says. Between now and a scheduled entry into service in the mid-2020s, the B-21 faces several development challenges, Walden says.
“Like anything, integration of mature technologies on a stealth platform could have some risk. And that’s where I think we’re going to see most of the risk associated with that programme. So we’re watching that closely,” Walden says.