US Air Force officials are today debriefed Boeing on its selection of Northrop Grumman for the $80 billion Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) programme ahead of a possible bid protest that could come as soon as next week.
Northrop’s classified bomber offering was chosen over one from a Boeing-lead team, and a spokesman for the company says the team will “digest” the information over several business days before deciding whether to file a formal protest with the US Government Accountability Office.
The Boeing/Lockheed Martin team was some investors’ favourite to win by a narrow margin going into the source-selection announcement on 27 October, and the team is believed to have bid aggressively against Northrop to secure the strategically important contract to deliver 100 bombers.
Valued at $80 billion including development and production, the selection decision was among the most widely anticipated since Lockheed was selected for the Joint Strike Fighter programme in 2001.
USAF officials say they have done as much as possible to protest-proof the decision through peer review and extra scrutiny, and the LRS-B acquisition has even been audited by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
In a joint statement, Boeing and Lockheed say they are particularly curious about how the competition was scored in terms of “price and risk”. If a protest is filed, the project will be on hold for up to 100 days while the GAO investigates and decides if it will sustain or deny the protest.
Defence analysts say a protest was almost a “foregone conclusion” regardless of the outcome given the contract's value, and there is likely to be intense lobbying activity on Capitol Hill as the losing side tries to reverse the devastating blow.
USAF acquisition chief William LaPlante told reporters prior to the contract announcement that a protest would not impact overall cost estimates, but could delay the start slightly. That would be more of a headache for budget programmers within the Pentagon as they try and predict how much money will be needed for the bomber in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
Independent government estimates place the cost of LRS-B development at $23.5 billion and the aircraft itself is predicted to cost $564 million per copy.