LE BOURGET, France — The U.S. Air Force wants to sprint toward buying new engines for the venerable B-52 bomber as quickly as possible. But disagreements between the service and House lawmakers over the Air Force’s acquisition approach threaten to slow down the program.
At issue is the Air Force’s use of “Section 804” authorities — new language, approved in the fiscal year 2016 defense authorization bill, that allows the Defense Department to quickly award contracts for prototyping work, even if requirements and cost estimates are still in the process of being finalized.
House lawmakers are concerned that using Section 804 for the B-52 engine replacement program leaves the door open for potential cost increases and schedule delays. The House Armed Services Committees version of the FY20 defense policy bill would cap all funding for the program unless the Air Force submits a capability development document and a signed test and evaluation master plan.
But Will Roper, the service’s top acquisition official, is confident that the Air Force is using the right approach.
“In the case of the B-52, the TF33 engine has been flown hard. It is an old engine. We have maintainers up in places like Minot [Air Force Base, North Dakota] that are doing heroes’ work trying to piece these engines back together. The depot is doing heroes’ work trying to do maintenance overhaul with a supply chain that is gone,” he told Defense News in an exclusive June 19 interview at Paris Air Show.
“We are at high risk for keeping that engine far into the future. So when my war fighter says I need a new engine and I have one path, the 804 path, which I can start a year and a half faster than I could the traditional path, I can’t tell that war fighter I’m going slow because that’s what others think is the best path,” he said.
Roper contends using the Section 804 authorities will allow the Air Force to spend more time in the engineering, manufacturing and development phase and apply a more rigorous approach to the design and prototyping work — thus cutting down on risk while still getting a new product to operators quickly.
“In the case of B-52 re-engine, we are using that time to do digital engineering for the engine pod integration. We have all three industry bidders on contract. We have Boeing on contract. They are working together as part of the source selection. They will deliver their virtual, their digital prototype to use by October,” Roper said.
“We would normally not even be on contract, and already we have a deliverable that will help us understand the challenges of integration. Are they able to keep the center of gravity and the fluid flow around the power pod, are they able to keep that the same? We will have that [information] earlier.”
The Air Force requested $175 million in FY20 for the commercial engine replacement program. The service’s investment will hike to $300 million in FY21 and will stay at about that level until FY24, when it is set to decrease to $270 million, according to the five-year projections in the FY20 budget request.
Pratt & Whitney, which produces the B-52’s legacy TF33 engine, Rolls Royce and General Electric are all anticipated to compete in the effort, which will field replacement engines for all 76 B-52H aircraft. Boeing, the B-52 prime contractor, is set to serve as systems integrator.
Once the engine vendors submit digital designs, the Air Force will narrow the field to a number of competitors who will have to produce a physical prototype, Roper said. Finally, the Air Force will downselect to a single vendor for engine production.
At an Air Force Association breakfast on Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein lauded the program but noted that the service still needs buy-in from Congress.
“We think we can get rather significant cost savings associated with using less fuel. And, of course, if you use less fuel it reduces the burden on your tankers, so there is goodness across the board,” he said. “Right now we're going through markup season, so we'll see where it lands, but we're pretty strong on that program going forward."
Meanwhile, House lawmakers are worried that the Air Force has not fully thought through the technical considerations of integrating modern engines with a 1950s-era bomber, said one House Armed Services Committee staffer earlier this month.
“The B-52 is an analog airplane, so it’s going to require and entirely new flight deck, new hydraulics, potentially a new electrical system. The B-52 currently has an EMP [electromagnetic pulse] hardening requirement due to the nuclear mission they carry out,” the staffer said.
“We just want to make sure they have a very clear understanding of what these requirements are, that they can articulate what those requirements are and that they know how they’re going to test to those requirements rather than spend a bunch of money and then find out, oh none of these commercial engines work because they weren’t designed to go on a nuclear-hardened bomber.”
HASC is especially concerned that using Section 804 would leave the B-52 engine replacement effort vulnerable to cost overruns, as those programs are not subject to certain oversight mechanisms such as the Nunn-McCurdy Act, the staffer said.
But Roper countered that the Air Force will still go through the same requirements generation process and cost analysis approach as it would on a typical major acquisition program. The main advantage is that prototyping work can begin earlier, when those efforts are still ongoing.
“We do all of the same documentation we would in a traditional program,” he said. “We just do it after we award a contract, so we get the benefit of jump-starting but we still do all the disciplined documentation. And I think the pushback we’ve been seeing is a misunderstanding.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.