A new generation of stealth technology, unprecedented sensing and computing, long-range precision cruise missiles, air-dropped bombs and an ability to strike undetected against the most advanced air defenses in the world: These are all potential attributes of the now-on-the-way Air Force B-21 bomber.
The new platform, which will form the bulk of the U.S. Air Force’s future bomber force cannot come soon enough. Testing, assessments and preparations have for quite some time been underway at Edwards Air Force Base in California, in anticipation of some of the aircraft’s first test flights. At least two B-21s are reported to have been built or under construction.
The Air Force-Northrop Grumman program has gone better than expected, inspiring many service leaders and members of Congress to not only push for accelerated delivery and production of the new bomber but also to massively increase the planned number of bombers.
The need for the new bomber is quite pressing in many respects, the principal reasons being the advanced technological capacity of enemy air defenses and the age of the current bomber fleet. Not only that, senior U.S. Air Force leaders have for many years now expressed grave concern about a massive “bomber deficit” in the force, a circumstance that puts the United States at risk. There simply have not been enough bombers, say Air Force leaders.
Equally key variables include the age and size of the B-2 fleet. Many remember that plans for the B-2 bomber were abruptly truncated years ago, resulting in a small force size of twenty B-2s. Since emerging during the Cold War years, the B-21 is now thirty years old. While looking in retrospect at the exact reasons for the B-2 production stop may be difficult three decades later, it may have been due in large measure to decisionmakers operating with a short-term threat outlook. The belief that the collapse of the former Soviet Union greatly reduced the need for stealthy B-2 bombers contributed to the small fleet size. Years later, the opposite has become true given the resurgence of a Russian threat and emerging Chinese threat. It should be said that the B-2 bomber is now quite different than it was years ago, and is still being upgraded. The modern B-2 is not only getting new Defensive Management Sensors that enable it to find and therefore elude next-generation air defenses but is also receiving one thousand-fold improved computer processing and upgraded weapons.
Then there is the question of the B-52, yet another older airplane sustained into the modern era with a massive amount of unanticipated upgrades including an internal weapons bay, new communications system and a re-engining, not to mention an entirely new weapons arsenal.
What all of this amounts to is that, despite the fact that several legacy bombers have been upgraded to remain viable, relevant and lethal in a new threat environment, the need for an entirely new platform cannot be understated.
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.