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The First Two B-21 Bombers Are Nearly Complete—and the Air Force Already Wants More of 'Em

·3 min read
  • Northrop Grumman is constructing the first two B-21 Raider bombers.

  • While these particular B-21s are test units, the Air Force plans to eventually use the planes as replacements for the Air Force's B-1 and B-2 bombers.

  • The service is pushing for nearly 50 percent more bombers than originally planned.

The first two B-21 Raider bombers—which will eventually be able to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons—are nearly mechanically complete, but still won't fly until 2022.

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The U.S. Air Force's (USAF) bomber program, designed to field a replacement for the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit by the late 2020s, is on track. That's a rarity in the world of military hardware procurement. Still, Congress is calling on the service to accelerate the program; USAF isn't budging.

"Once we get through design and get the first ones delivered, we can adjust production rates and maybe affect them that way, but we have to get through the engineering with solid discipline," Air Force acting acquisition executive Darlene Costello said during a House Armed Services panel on June 8.

One major reason the Air Force doesn't want to speed up the B-21 program is that, while the bombers are almost mechanically complete, the service has not yet solidified the overall design for the larger fleet. The service is concerned that speeding things up could introduce concurrency issues.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

That's a circumstance in which an aircraft is built before the design is finalized. The Air Force intentionally introduced concurrency with the F-35 fighter to make planes available to pilots sooner, with the idea that the service would eventually update the early production jets to match the final hardware and software standard.

Concurrency indeed got pilots into F-35 cockpits faster, but it also created the nightmare of hundreds of jets, worldwide, built to different hardware and software standards. As a result, the military required billions of dollars in additional funding to bring the fighters up to the final standard. Although the Air Force is eager to get the B-21 Raider flying, it would prefer not to repeat such a complex and expensive headache again.

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It's also expressed a strong interest in a future fleet of 225 heavy bombers. The Air Force currently has 158 bombers, with 62 B-1 Lancer bombers, 20 B-2 Spirit bombers, and 76 B-52H Stratofortress bombers. The B-21 will replace the B-1 and B-2, while the B-52H will fly on through at least the 2040s, if not into the 2050s.

In order to reach a future fleet of 225 bombers, the service would need 149 B-21 Raider bombers. That's nearly a 50 percent increase in demand, up from the Air Force's original plans to buy about 100 of the planes for a maximum of $665 million.

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