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The Air Force unveils its B-21 stealth aircraft. It’s not a mess, for a change.


On Friday, the Pentagon finally lifts the veil of secrecy on its latest defense megaproject, a next-generation stealth bomber called the B-21 Raider capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons around the world. Six are already in various stages of assembly at a secret facility near Palmdale, California.

Each new B-21 is valued at approximately $729.25 million, and the U.S. Air Force plans to purchase at least 100. The costs of research and development, procurement, and routine operations over 30 years for this large number of two-seater bombers should total 203 billion dollars.

In a real drip, the program would have gone over budget by $25 billion. Adjusted for inflation, it’s half the price of the exorbitantly priced B-2 stealth bomber it’s supposed to replace.

At this point, it may seem time to embark on yet another runaway defense program. Over the past three decades, expensive Pentagon projects like the F-35 stealth fighter have been beset by huge cost overruns and technical problems leading to delays. In some cases, they failed outright. Equally bad, other projects like the US Navy’s littoral combat ship took so long to develop that they were conceptually obsolete by the time they entered service.

But by most accounts, including those of congressional critics of flawed past programs, the B-21 avoided major cost overruns and delays through disciplined program management (although the first flight was pushed back by six months). And in a real dropper the program would have entered below its $25 billion budget. Adjusted for inflation, it’s half the price of the exorbitantly priced B-2 stealth bomber it’s supposed to replace.

This welcome turn of events may be the result of institutional learning from past procurement debacles, in particular that it’s not a good idea to try to do too much at once while promising an unrealistic price. For example, earlier this year the Air Force considered developing a cheaper unmanned drone version of the B-21 that could provide additional firepower and undertake riskier missions – but then wisely abandoned the plan after realizing the cost savings would be minimal and before much had been spent on this option.

Instead, contractor Northrop Grumman focused on building the airframe with additional upgradability over the decades, the lack of which increased the cost of upgrades and limited service life. of certain military aircraft. Its open-architecture systems, which can be cheaply upgraded to support new plug-and-play gear and weapons, were particularly crucial. So does its use of existing technologies such as the F135 engine already mass-produced for the F-35 fighters.

This profitability increases when one considers that its uses are directly relevant to U.S. security interests today and in the decades to come – unlike, for example, coastal vessels designed to combat developing nations. The new stealth bombers should be particularly useful in defending US allies in the Eastern Pacific concerned about the conflict with China and its growing regional military resources.

Certainly the new bomber will not sit well with those who think the US military should have a much smaller role overseas – although even then long-range Raiders based on US soil could reduce the number of combat aircraft positioned on foreign soil. However, if you think the United States should retain a credible ability to defend its allies across the Pacific, including Japan, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, the B-21 should be very useful. .

While investing billions in better war machines for conflicts one fervently hopes will never be fought may seem wasteful, perceptions of vulnerability can also lead to conflict. Consider Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently invaded in part because he thought it was militarily weaker than it actually was.

A significant B-21 force could persuading the Chinese military to realize that it cannot rely on a preemptive missile strike to sufficiently neutralize US air power should it attempt to seize Taiwan – and perhaps dissuade it from making that attempt.

The Raider could do this by offering a rare combination of characteristics: it can fly for many hours over long distances carrying a heavy payload while remaining stealthy enough to slip through airspace guarded by enemy air defenses, what the Air Force B-1 and B-52 bombers cannot do.

And compared to the B-2 stealth bomber it will replace, the B-21 will use new radar-absorbing materials that should give it an even smaller radar signature while costing a plot less maintenance than the maintenance-intensive 1980s technology on the B-2.

According to the Air Force, new sensors and digital systems should allow the B-21 to perform additional missions that the less flexible and easily upgradeable B-2 cannot, such as monitoring an adversary’s activities and transmitting data on its movements to friendly forces and serving as a command and control center for ground forces or swarms of armed drones that can fire enemy missiles and perform high-risk missions. The Raider may even be capable of using air-to-air missiles for self-defense or to aid friendly fighters.

As for the Pentagon’s short-range stealth F-35s, existing aircraft box infiltrate hostile airspace but can only travel a fraction of the distance of the B-21 and carry much lighter weapon loads. To operate in the Western Pacific, they must be based on aircraft carriers or islands relatively close to the East Asian coast where they are vulnerable to more than 2,200 Chinese rocket force missiles – including many can hit moving ships.

The B-21, on the other hand, can launch strikes from the North American mainland or from more remote islands like Hawaii or Diego Garcia. This means that even a Pearl Harbor-style first strike on US airbases in East Asia would not preclude a powerful US retaliatory capability in the early days of a war. (The Chinese military is seizing the advantages of long-range stealth bombers in the context of the Pacific and is developing its own Raider-type stealth bomber to extend its strike range.)

That’s not to say the Raider program should be written a blank check. Significant challenges remain in the systems integration phase, and further public scrutiny may reveal further issues. Air Force management has made no secret that it would ultimately prefer to acquire more than 145 B-21s; Congress should only extend the purchase of Raider if it demonstrates satisfactory performance when deployed in the mid-2020s.

Nevertheless, the B-21 appears to have a solid concept and was developed without cost overruns and with relatively minor delays. It looks likely to be more flexible, scalable and cost effective than the aircraft it replaces. This gives hope not only for this new aircraft, but also for the Pentagon’s ability to right the ship for other future systems.



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