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Air Force: Northrop’s $3 billion B-2 upgrades lagging by almost three years

A U.S. Air Force 509th Bomb Wing B-2 Spirit approaches a 351st Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during the Bomber Task Force training exercise over England on Aug. 29, 2019.

JORDAN CASTELAN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: October 30, 2019

Upgrades to help America’s aging B-2 bomber fleet detect and evade the improving air defenses of rivals China, Russia and Iran are running almost three years late and over budget.

The service now estimates it will take until at least until September 2024 before eight of the U.S.’s 20 stealth bombers are upgraded to have an initial combat capability, according to an Air Force statement. That’s 33 months later than the timetable established in 2016, when the project started, according to a program document submitted with this year’s budget request and the statement.

The cost of the upgrade program has increased about 11%, or $285 million, since last year, to $3 billion, according to the Air Force’s fiscal 2020 Selected Acquisition Report.

The latest delay is being driven by an 18-month slip, to late 2020, in certifying key software that was supposed to have occurred in June. The software must be certified before flight testing. Northrop Grumman Corp., the original B-2 contractor, is also the prime contractor on the next-generation B-21 bomber, so the company’s performance has drawn particular Pentagon scrutiny.

“An aggressive software development, coupled with software development manpower challenges, resulted in lower-than anticipated” progress, said Capt. Cara Bousie, an Air Force spokeswoman. The service will declare the upgrade has achieved initial combat capability after the Global Strike Command, which operates the B-2, “has received the new system and has the ability to employ and maintain it,” she said.

First used in 1999 over Kosovo, the B-2 is the only combat aircraft that can carry America’s heaviest non-nuclear bomb, the 30,000-pound GBU-57 “bunker buster.” The upgrade program is supposed to be a key example of the “increased lethality” and prowess in penetrating enemy air space called for in the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy and by General David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff. But the delays challenge a mantra of the Trump-era Pentagon to develop and deploy systems “at the speed of relevance.”

Without the upgrade, the B-2’s current system for detecting, locating and identifying ground-based air defense radar and other sensors has shortcomings that limit “overall B-2 operational capability and survivability,” according to the Selected Acquisition Report.

In its report for this year’s defense budget, the House Armed Services Committee raised concerns about “significant schedule delays and many substantial challenges highlighted” in an April assessment prepared by the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service unit. The committee said that unless the service makes “significant change,” delays may continue.

Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop, said the company has completed installation of the new system on the first test aircraft and ground testing is underway.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment” to “continue to aggressively complete software and airworthiness certification efforts in order to fully deliver this next-generation level of capabilities,” Paynter said.

Still, the Air Force report — completed in mid-April but not disclosed previously — said that “despite increasing emphasis from Northrop Grumman leadership, the contractor is underperforming on its software development get-well plan.” That’s “due to inaccurate estimates” as to how long software development would take and manpower issues that “resulted in aggressive timelines.”

The service’s report did cite signs of progress: Northrop has created specialized teams combining software developers and systems engineers “to further mitigate risk.” And “results of integration test efforts have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek declined to release the Defense Digital Service report, saying it was labeled “For Official Use Only.”

“Many of the areas of concern identified by the DDS — need for more technical expertise and the need for improved software development environment — reinforced existing concerns held by the program office,” she said in an email. The service “has taken numerous corrective actions before and since the DDS report was completed and have more” in the works.

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