The Air Force is beefing up its budget for its new B-21 stealth bomber as the service moves into production mode and builds the first several aircraft, an initial step toward its goal of acquiring at least 145 B-21s.
The Air Force had for many years indicated that it planned to buy about 100 B-21s. However following ongoing developmental success with the program, the promise of its new technologies, and a fast-deteriorating existing Air Force bomber fleet, service leaders have not only said they could likely “pulse” production to go up higher than 100 but potentially go substantially higher.
Some service leaders, lawmakers, and veterans have even been calling for as many as 200 new B-21s. However, the service’s current plan remains 145. The jump to 145, echoed recently by senior service leaders, represents heightened confidence in the program which is now amid preparations for its first flight.
The Air Force's commitment to the B-21 is evidenced by its 2022 budget request, which asks for $2.8 billion for the new bombers, a $30 million jump over last year.
Deliberations about the continued acceleration of B-21 production, reflect several interesting variables, especially as the first two airframes prepare to take to the sky following additional testing and preparation. The first and most pressing variable is clear and self-evident, as there is a massive Air Force need for new platforms. While there is great promise in the near-term success of upgrades to legacy aircraft such as the B-52, B-2, and even B-1, it is no secret that the fleet is aging. New weapons, engines, avionics, and communications technologies for the B-52 are expected to ensure the platform is highly capable and relevant for decades, yet it is a 1960s era-airframe, however viable the airframes may be.
Much like the B-52, upgrades to the B-2 are making it an almost entirely new stealth bomber capable of performing against a new generation of threats. New Defensive Management System sensors will enable the B-2 to find and therefore avoid enemy air defenses, new computer processing is 1,000-fold faster and upgraded weapons and fire control will vastly improve the aircraft’s lethality. However, the B-2 is still three decades old and, much to the dismay of many in subsequent years, the program was massively truncated years ago and there are very few actual B-2s.
The possibility of increasing the Air Force’s B-21 fleet size not only relates to this well-known reality that the force desperately needs new platforms for the future, but also pertains in an extremely significant way to technological progress and the existing threat environment. Much of the breakthrough technology potentially integrated into the B-21 is likely not available for security reasons. There is broad discussion surrounding the extent to which it will introduce an entirely new generation of stealth capability as well as paradigm-changing computing, sensing, targeting, and AI-enabled data organization. These things could likely prove crucial given the rapid technical advances now being made by enemies with systems such as air defenses. Finally, once a production line is up and running effectively, there can be cost and maintenance advantages to buying more.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for The National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.