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Holding the Government Accountable

The Stealth Price Tag of the B-21 Bomber

Original POGO graphic by Iulia Gheorghiu.

Whether you’re looking to buy something as large as a new home or as small as a gallon of milk, you’ll probably want to see the price tag before making the purchase. It would be pretty irresponsible to shell out cash without knowing how much something costs.

But that’s exactly what the Air Force is asking US taxpayers to do with the new B-21 stealth bomber, to the tune of billions of dollars. The Pentagon is essentially telling Americans, “Trust us with billions of your hard-earned dollars and we’ll deliver a new fleet of bombers. Just don’t ask about the cost.”

The Air Force’s own estimates for the B-21 program have ranged wildly from $33.1 billion to $58.4 billion - a difference of $25 billion, or 76 percent. Without making the contract price public, the military contractors cannot be held accountable to deliver on their promises. This is true not just for the B-21, but for the rest of our planned nuclear modernization, which is projected to cost taxpayers an astounding $1 trillion.

The Air Force claims that releasing the contract price of the B-21 stealth bomber program would allow potential adversaries to identify some of the new aircraft’s capabilities, such as its range and the size of its payload.

But Senator John McCain calls this argument “nonsense.” The Arizona Republican and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee points out that the B-21’s budget is unclassified and the Air Force has already released the per-unit cost, drawings of the new plane, and a list of top-tier supplies for the program.

Yet, in a closed-door session, his colleagues voted 19-7 against Senator McCain’s request to publicly disclose the cost of the program.

The cowardice is bipartisan: Democrats and Republicans alike caved into pressure from defense industry lobbyists.

Clearly, the only reason to keep the B-21 price tag secret is to shield huge, powerful companies like Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the program, from scrutiny.

If we don’t know how much the planes are supposed to cost, we can’t complain when they go over budget, right?

It’s worth noting that Congressional auditors recently found that the cost of Pentagon weapon systems grew to a staggering $469 billion beyond initial estimates. Given the complexity and cost risks inherent to the B-21 stealth bomber program, the public deserves to know the baseline contract price so the Pentagon and defense contractors can be held accountable for cost overruns.

This lack of transparency is actually a widespread problem that goes far beyond the B-21. The Senate Armed Services Committee met behind closed doors to mark up this year’s colossal $602 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Nonpartisan watchdog groups like the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) have called this nothing short of a “usurpation of the democratic process.”

To be clear, we favor a strong U.S. military, but only a sucker would buy something without knowing how much it costs. Especially when that something is a billion-dollar fleet of highly sophisticated military weapons.

American taxpayers are not suckers. We demand to know how our dollars are being spent and we intend to hold the people spending them accountable.

Take Action

Congress needs to hear from you! Click here to urge Congress to demand the Air Force to release the cost of the B-21 bomber contract.