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​Defence bill language could affect bomber technology development

A provision within the House of Representative’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2017 could affect the development of emerging technologies for major defence acquisition programmes, including the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber.

The proposal from Rep Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would separate risky technology development from major acquisition programmes and require a high level of maturity for technology before it is integrated onto a platform. Under the current defence acquisition system, technologies that are not associated with a specific programme of record are often guaranteed a short lifespan.

That provision would change the culture of defence acquisition and could affect major programmes, including the B-21 bomber, says Andrew Hunter, a defence industry analyst at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies. The bomber constitutes a major recapitalisation of the US Air Force’s bomber fleet, but also contains a number of technology efforts within it, Hunter said during a 30 August panel at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Although much of the technology for the B-21 is already mature, the bomber’s modular design should also allow the air force to incorporate new capabilities over the aircraft’s lifetime, he says.

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“Technologies are going to have to be developed to make that system work in terms of its signature characteristics, in terms of performance it’s going to get out of certain antennas and arrays that it needs to be able to communicate with the rest of the air force system and the rest of the joint force,” he says. “So not only do we need to plan to have antennas built into the design on the front end so we’re not reverse engineering that later, but it’s got to be flexible enough that things that we can’t even dream that the airplane might need to do in 20 years.”

Under Thornberry’s proposal in the defence authorisation bill, much of that research and development would not be done as part of the B-21 programme, but as a separate effort focused on technology that would not migrate onto a platform until it has been demonstrated and reached a significant level of maturity.

But the House bill also addresses the concern that technology would languish in the research phase, a current bone of contention between research agencies and the services within the Defense Department. The language specifies technology should be ready within three years and under $50 million, Hunter says.

“One of the concerns I’ve heard from industry is that for $50 million, what innovation do you think we’re going to develop?” he says. “It’s going to be pretty challenging to push the envelope. I think the concern has been, it’s so tightly constrained the way they’ve constructed it, it may hard to do more of the cutting edge or work the department has to do.”

Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, says Thornberry’s language would not affect the bomber programme since much of the aircraft’s development has already been completed, albeit under wraps. Still, some in the defence industry have also expressed their concern that the provision could become an accounting tool that prevents risk taking, he says.

“If you set unrealistically high standards, if you make it a rigid way of operating you’re not doing yourself any good at all,” Goure says. “This seems another avoidance of risk manoeuvre.”

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