As Northrop Grumman forges ahead with the production of America’s next-generation stealth strategic bomber, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is mulling plans to procure almost twice as many B-21’s as originally expected.
The B-21 prototype is slowly taking shape. Earlier this summer, director and program executive officer for the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office Randy Walden offered an update on the B-21 program. “The first test aircraft is being built, and it’s starting to look like an airplane,” said Walden. “Suppliers from across the country are delivering parts that are coming together now. Aircraft programs will always have a few surprises early on, and we won’t be any different, but overall the B-21 Raider is coming along nicely,” he added. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who visited Northrop Grumman’s B-21 design and development headquarters in August, offered an upbeat assessment: “I am thoroughly impressed by the dedication and progress across the B-21 Raider team.”
General Timothy Ray, Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command reaffirmed that the first serial B-21’s are expected to begin operations in the mid-2020’s, with the first B-21 flight still on track for late 2021 despite logistical disruption wrought by the pandemic.
How Many Is Enough:
With the B-21 program consistently meeting deadlines and budget forecasts, there is now talk of expanding, if not doubling, the early acquisition target. Citing the benefits from economies of scale, Gen. Arnold Bunch, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, suggested that the USAF could go higher—and possibly much higher— than its current target of 100 B-21’s.
“As I look at how we set up the mission system and the open systems architecture for the B-21, we are going to retain those aircraft for a long period of time because I am going to bring new technologies in… for small fleets, it is hard to get a vendor base,” he said in a video interview with Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. In the same conversation, Deptula suggested that 180 B-21’s could be a feasible number. It was revealed in late October that the Air Force has committed to retraining current Weapons System Officers (WSO’s) into B-21 pilots to reduce the overall number of WSO’s and address an increasing pilot shortage. The retraining program could also help the USAF meet what could be a higher-than-expected number of upcoming serial B-21 units.
What the B-21 Can Do:
The B-21 is a heavy stealth strategic bomber that grew out of the Long Range Strike Bomber program (LRS-B), an acquisition effort by the USAF to procure a next-generation, nuclear-capable long-range strike bomber. The B-21 will be a flying wing bomber, designed with a focus on minimizing radar cross-section. The B-21’s weapons, which will include the newer B61-12 bomb, JASSM-ER cruise missile, and the 30,000 Pound GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb, will be housed solely in the bomber’s internal armaments bay. As with its upcoming Russian PAK DA counterpart, the B-21 will be a subsonic bomber that prioritizes payload capacity and deep penetration capabilities over raw speed and maneuverability.
“Nuclear modernization is a department priority – especially in our efforts to implement the National Defense Strategy,” said Defense Secretary Esper. “We have made great strides in ensuring the strength and reliability of our nation’s nuclear deterrent. The ability to strike any target, anywhere is the ultimate strategic deterrent and the B-21 Raider will bring that capability.”
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.