Tough Choices Ahead for B-21 Program
Photo-illustration: Northrop Grumman, iStock
The Air Force wants to beef up its bomber fleet over the next decade. That could be a boon to B-21 Raider manufacturer Northrop Grumman and its industry partners, but it’s unclear whether the initiative will receive sufficient funding.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson recently said the service needs 74 more squadrons — including five additional bomber squadrons — by 2030 to carry out the national defense strategy. The proposal was based on the preliminary results of a study that the service is conducting. The final report will be delivered to Congress in March.
“Right now we have not got the exact mix of [aircraft] tails,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters during a roundtable. “Part of that dialogue will be the costing out the number of tails, the number of pilots, the number of maintainers. And so that’s work that is still to be done.”
In the 2020s, the B-21 will be the only bomber in production. In 2015, Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract to build the new stealth aircraft. Much of the details remain secret, but officials have said they expect the procurement cost not to exceed $550 million per plane.
The program is being shepherded by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and the platform is expected to achieve initial operating capability by the mid-2020s.
“One thing they could do [to increase the size of the bomber force] is not retire some of the legacy bombers,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“But I think it’s no secret that the Air Force has been saying for a while that they want to buy more than 100 of the B-21 bombers, and 100 was the baseline on the program. So I fully expect that when we see the final report, it’s going to call for a … greater number of bombers in production,” he added during a briefing with reporters.
However, the Air Force is facing a modernization “bow wave” that includes the B-21 bomber, KC-46 tanker, F-35 joint strike fighter, Minuteman III missile replacements and T-X trainer, he noted.
“They’ve got all of these major acquisition programs that are planned, and now they are talking about growing force structure on top of that. That’s going to be an incredible increase of funding that will be required in the 2020s,” Harrison said. “It would behoove the Air Force to come up with a good analysis of what this is going to cost and what kind of tradeoffs they can make in their own budget to pay for this.”
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at CSIS, estimated that the Air Force proposal for adding 74 squadrons would cost an additional $37 billion per year. Robert Levinson, a senior defense analyst at Bloomberg Government, said a low-end estimate is about $23 billion in extra funding through 2030.
“Even if the USAF gets the [B-21] jet at the cost it wants, assuming 10 aircraft per squadron it will need another 50 jets, so that’s about $27.5 billion in additional procurement costs,” Levinson said in an email. “Finding the money for that is going to be tough.”
It’s possible that the Air Force will get additional bombers, he said. “But my bet is that that there is no way by 2030 the USAF gets everything it wants, so it will have to make choices,” he added. “Where the B-21 falls in the inevitable rack and stack exercise is anyone’s guess.”