The USAF Rapid Capabilites Office help produce the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a semi-secret space plane that sits on the runway after landing on Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The USAF Rapid Capabilites Office help produce the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a semi-secret space plane that sits on the runway after landing on Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. USAF / Michael Stonecypher

Meet the Secretive Team Shaping the Air Force’s New Bomber

The 80-person group operates outside of the typical chain of command, which senior officials say will keep the stealth aircraft program on track.

About 80 people on a secretive U.S. Air Force team are overseeing the service’s most sensitive aircraft project in decades: the development of a new stealth bomber whose prime contractor could be announced as soon as Friday.

The bomber team works inside the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, a unit that specializes in “delivering eye-watering capabilities,” William LaPlante, the service’s acquisition chief, told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon.

The team is made up of experienced officers working the project’s requirements, maintainers who have worked on these types of planes, and acquisition professionals.

“It’s got our best people there,” LaPlante said. “They love their jobs.”

This is the first time the military has built a bomber since the 1980s, when the stealthy B-2 Spirit was built in secret to preserve its ability to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The current effort, dubbed the Long Range Strike-Bomber or LRS-B, has been wrapped in nearly as much secrecy, and to the same general end: giving American forces a long-term edge.

In an attempt to keep the program from spiraling into the kinds of cost and schedule overruns that severely truncated the B-2 program, the new bomber will be built using mature or existing technologies, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for acquisition, said Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean the plane won’t have a big edge on the battlefield.

“Just because they’re existing and mature doesn’t mean that they’re in the open,” LaPlante said. “It doesn’t mean that any of you even know about them.”

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Created in 2003, the Rapid Capabilities Office is built for speed — specifically, for producing battle-ready arms in a fraction of the time it takes the Pentagon’s regular acquisition process. Its mission is to “rapidly develop new capabilities to counter the increasing pace of threat evolution,” according to a 2008 briefing given by Randall Walden, who now runs the RCO.

Specializing in prototyping and unafraid to use commercial equipment, the RCO is a “streamlined acquisition shop that does some of our most sensitive and important work,” LaPlante said.

Among that work is the X-37B, a space drone that the Air Force barely acknowledges exists, and won’t say what it’s been doing on its several orbital missions. The elite group also built a special beacon that aims red and green lights at planes that fly into the restricted airspace around Washington. And it developed and fielded — in just nine months — a surface-to-air missile system to shoot down a hijacked aircraft aimed at government buildings in the area.

But they work on other stuff too, classified projects that are not discussed. And the projects are not “one-off things,” LaPlante said. “I’m talking about things that go into production.”

The RCO operates outside of the Defense Department bureaucracy, reporting directly to LaPlante, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. Almost every week the group talks with senior Pentagon leaders, such as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The group “was chosen for a deliberate reason,” LaPlante said.

The Air Force is imminently expected to announce which contractor will build the program’s 100 aircraft: Northrop Grumman or a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Some cost estimates will be released with the contract award, Air Force officials said, but the program’s overall cost will remain classified.