(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon’s inspector general has opened a review into whether the Air Force has imposed excessive secrecy on fundamentals of its $80 billion program to develop and build the new B-21 bomber.
The Defense Department’s watchdog office was ordered “to conduct an evaluation and submit a report” to Congress within six months under a provision of the $1.17 trillion government-wide spending bill for the current fiscal year enacted this month. The provision was little-noticed because it refers obliquely to directions in a Senate appropriations measure passed last year.
The review objectives are based on the Appropriations Committee’s language and “further conversations with committee staff,” Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said in an email. “I can’t provide further details because the project and the evaluation are classified.”
Last year, the Air Force rebuffed requests, including from Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, to reveal basic information such as the value of the development contract awarded Northrop Grumman Corp. or the amount of the fee set aside to encourage meeting program goals, citing their potential value to adversaries.
The review is looking “across the spectrum” at what the Air Force is disclosing with an intent to “balance program classification with the transparency that we’re shooting for,” Air Force Lieutenant General Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition official, told reporters Monday.
“We believe we’ve got it balanced properly,” Bunch said, but the inspector general is “analyzing how much we are releasing or are not releasing, to give us recommendations on how to move forward.”
The Air Force has released a notional sketch of the stealth aircraft, cost goals per plane and the names of top subcontractors. It also eventually approved the release in October of a redacted version of a Government Accountability Office decision from February 2016 rejecting a Boeing Co. protest of the contract award to Northrop.
The Senate Appropriations panel directed the inspector general to conduct a review “of the security strategy, controls and program protection plan.” An aide to committee Chairman Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, said he asked for the review to make sure there’s the right balance between classified and unclassified information.
The aide said that although the committee didn’t specify the format for the inspector general’s report, it could be unclassified with a classified annex.
The Air Force’s desire for secrecy was buttressed in May 2016 when seven Republicans and all Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee joined in a 19-7 vote behind closed doors against making the contract value public, including the fees Northrop could earn.
Then-Air Force Secretary Deborah James said last year that disclosing “the contract value -- per the experts on these matters,” such as engineers, “could be a contributing factor” to an adversary deriving information such as “size, weight, power and other factors.”
“We are still in the early days of the B-21,” but the Air Force has revealed more about the new bomber program than what was disclosed at similar stages for its predecessors, the B-1 and B-2, she said.