B-21 Raider: The Expensive Bomber the U.S. Air Force Is Desperate For

B-21 Raider U.S. Air Force Image

B-21 Raider: The Expensive Bomber the U.S. Air Force Is Desperate For

The B-21 Raider, despite its high cost, is deemed essential for the U.S. Air Force's future readiness, with production set to proceed at a low rate to accommodate potential budget cuts.

Summary: The B-21 Raider, despite its high cost, is deemed essential for the U.S. Air Force's future readiness, with production set to proceed at a low rate to accommodate potential budget cuts. This strategy, influenced by lessons from the F-35 program, aims to ensure cost-effective production. The Raider, a "sixth-generation" bomber developed by Northrop Grumman, will serve multiple roles, including as a stealthy battle manager and intelligence collector. With an initial plan to introduce at least 100 bombers, analysts argue for increasing the fleet to 150-200 units to maintain a competitive edge, particularly against China's advancing military capabilities.

B-21 Raider: The Costly Yet Crucial Future of U.S. Air Superiority

The Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment chief in January addressed concerns about the B-21 Raider’s high price tag.

William LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said the stealth bomber would be produced at an intentionally low rate in case of looming budgetary cuts. He added that lessons learned from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have resulted in new measures being implemented to ensure a smooth production process and lower costs. When the Raider does enter service with the U.S. Air Force, it is expected to become the backbone of its bomber fleet.

The Air Force flies three strategic bombers: the legendary B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1B Lancer, and the B-2 Spirit. Of the three, the Spirit is the most advanced, featuring stealth capabilities and a low radar cross-section to penetrate deep into enemy airspace. 

While all three airframes remain viable, the Air Force hopes to introduce the Raider before China or Russia complete their own next-generation stealth bomber programs – the H-20 and PAK-DA, respectively. As the service gets closer to its Raider objectives, cost is a growing concern.

The Origins of the Raider

The B-21 is the fruit of the Air Force’s Long-Range Strike Bomber program, which commenced in 2011. Manufacturing giant Northrop Grumman won the contract to develop the bomber, beating out Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The Raider is designed to serve as a battle manager, intelligence-collection platform, and interceptor aircraft, and Northrop describes it as a “sixth-generation” bomber. The Raider was officially unveiled in late 2022 at Northrop’s production facilities in Palmdale, California.

In released images, the Raider appears to be much smaller than its Spirit predecessor. Sandboxx News suggests that the Raider’s wingspan could be approximately 15% shorter than the Spirit’s. Having a smaller frame will give the Raider a significant advantage, as it will be harder to detect on radar. Similar to the F-35 Lightning II platform, the Raider will incorporate modular systems that will enable upgrades to the airframe as new technology becomes available. The B-21 will carry both conventional and nuclear ordnance. Other details concerning the platform remain highly classified.

B-21: What About the Cost?

Earlier this year, Northrop reported a roughly $1.6 billion pre-tax charge on its stealth bomber program as the platform moved into its low-rate initial production phase. The Air Force hopes to introduce at least 100 of these bombers beginning in the mid-2020s. According to some analysts, it is critical to push this number at least into the range of 150 to 200 in order for the U.S. to maintain operational readiness for a potential conflict against China. However, the cost of each bomber will ultimately determine the number of Raiders that join the fleet.

About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin