The B-21 bomber, which is supposed to be able to drop massive payloads onto America’s enemies in the near future, is still shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know what it can do, how it can do it, and we only have one single, solitary illustration of it. We also don’t know the price, and thanks to the United States Senate, that’s by design.
Big-ticket weapons like the F-35 fighter jet and the Zumwalt-class destroyer have come under heavy criticism for seemingly operating under the assumption that their budgets are essentially unlimited. The F-35 program, which has not gone well, is estimated to cost over a trillion dollars when all is said and done, and not many are happy about that. Out of the 32 Zumwalt-class destroyers originally planned, only three will actually get built thanks in large part to costs spiraling ever upwards.
But Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has found a reason to keep budgets that are susceptible to bloat—like the B-21 program—secret, and conveniently enough, it’s the all-menacing specter of “security,” according to Roll Call:
During a robust committee debate, [Senator Bill] Nelson [D-FL] said the Air Force was right in arguing that disclosure of the bid value would give away too much data to U.S. adversaries about the plane’s capabilities. Under Nelson’s amendment, now part of the bill, the contract cost figure must only be delivered in classified briefings to the congressional defense committees.
“I don’t want to give our enemies information by which they can figure out” the weight and materials of the plane, Nelson later told CQ Roll Call.
In case you’re having trouble picking up the details there, Sen. Nelson thinks that if anyone at all outside of the defense establishment knows what the B-21 costs, then that would be Helping Our Enemies.
Not how fast it goes, or how it evades radar, but merely the price tag. The thinking is that knowing the price tag just might clue someone in to what it’s made out of, or what it’s capable of.
The members of the Senate Armed Services committee voted 19 to 7 in support of Nelson and, thus keeping the acquisition cost of the first batch of B-21s entirely in the dark.
The U.S. Air Force eventually plans on purchasing 100 B-21s, but how much they’re planning on spending for that, too, is a secret.
There’s a counterargument here, which is that Defense Department “Black Programs” have long been secret, with strictly classified budgets. And that’s true – but that sort of secrecy is usually reserved for programs that involve relatively limited scope, experimental systems, or intelligence-gathering.
And the B-21, while we know precious little about it, is said to be on the cutting edge of technology. Which is fine, if it was some sort of super-secret, extremely-limited run technology demonstrator, like Lockheed’s Tacit Blue, which was used to develop the stealth technology that later went into the B-2 Spirit bomber.
If we’re talking about the B-2, however, we can probably look at it as a predecessor of the B-21, not just in capability, but in program development as well.
When the B-2 was still in the process of creation it was shrouded in many layers of secrecy. It got to the point that when Honda featured a fake plane in an ad that was disconcertingly close to the real thing before it was revealed, it caused a bit of a stir. Even when the public got a first official look at the B-2, the members of the assembled media were ordered to stay 200 feet back, lest they get too close of a look. (That didn’t stop Aviation Week from taking photos from above, but that’s neither here nor there right now.)
And it didn’t stop information about costs from getting out, nor did it stop a stream of Government Accountability Office reports about the hit to taxpayers’ wallets from getting out.
One-hundred thirty two B-2 bombers were originally planned to be acquired by the Air Force, much like the 100 B-21s that the USAF plans to acquire now. But faced with those escalating costs and a lack of a need to penetrate Soviet defenses, that number was eventually reduced to a total procurement of 21.
And it’s not like knowledge about the program costs have resulted in shoot-downs of B-2s when they’ve flown over conflict zones. In fact, the only total hull loss to date of a B-2 was the crash of a bomber on takeoff from a USAF base in Guam. The B-2 has penetrated defenses over countries like Serbia, Libya, and Iraq without incident, and all three almost certainly knew how much each bomber cost.
Okay, sure, the B-21 will last longer, and has the potential to face more complicated enemies than the B-2 ever did, but that’s still a very shaky argument to be used to justify complete secrecy of taxpayer dollars.
And if we don’t know what it costs, there’s nothing stopping it from becoming an expensive mess.