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The Pentagon’s new stealth bomber may not be a boondoggle, for once

Its cost-effectiveness grows when you consider that its uses are directly relevant to U.S. security interests now and in the coming decades.
An artistic rendering of a B-21 bomber.
An artistic rendering of a B-21 bomber.Alan Radecki / Northrup Grumman

The Pentagon on Friday is finally lifting the veil of secrecy on its latest defense mega-project, a next-generation stealth bomber called the B-21 Raider capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons across the globe. Six are already at various stages of assembly at a secretive facility near Palmdale, California.

Each new B-21 is pegged at roughly $729.25 million, and the U.S. Air Force expects to procure at least 100 of them. Costs for research and development, procurement and routine operations over 30 years for that many of the two-seat bombers are expected to total $203 billion.

In a real jaw-dropper, the program has reportedly come in under its $25 billion budget. Factoring in inflation, it’s half the price of the exorbitantly expensive B-2 stealth bomber it’s meant to replace.

At this juncture, it may sound like time to tear into yet another out-of-control defense program. Over the last three decades, Pentagon big-ticket projects like the F-35 stealth fighter have been beset by huge cost overruns and delay-inducing technical problems. In some cases they outright failed. Just as bad, other endeavors like the U.S. 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 prior flawed programs, the B-21 has avoided major cost overruns and delays thanks to disciplined program management (though the first flight did get pushed back by six months). And in a real jaw-dropper, the program has reportedly come in under its $25 billion budget. Factoring in inflation, it’s half the price of the exorbitantly expensive B-2 stealth bomber it’s meant to replace.

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

Instead, contractor Northrop Grumman focused on building the airframe with extra capacity to evolve over decades, the lack of which has raised the cost of upgrades and limited the service life of some military aircraft. Its open-architecture systems, which can be cheaply updated to support new plug-and-play equipment and weapons, were particularly crucial. As has been its use of existing technologies such as the F135 engine already being mass-produced for F-35 fighters.

This cost-effectiveness grows when you consider that its uses are directly relevant to U.S. security interests now and in the coming decades — unlike, say, littoral ships designed for fighting developing countries. The new stealth bombers should be especially useful for defending U.S. allies in the Eastern Pacific concerned about conflict with China and its growing regional military assets

Admittedly, the new bomber won’t appeal to those who believe the U.S. military should have a much smaller role overseas — though even then, long-range Raiders based on U.S. soil could reduce the numbers of combat aircraft positioned on foreign soil. However, if you believe the U.S. should retain a credible ability to defend 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 strenuously hopes are never fought can seem unnecessary, perceptions of vulnerability can lead to conflict, too. Consider Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded apparently in part because he thought it was militarily weaker than it turned out to be.

A significant B-21 force might persuade China’s military to realize that it can’t count on a preemptive missile strike to sufficiently neutralize U.S. air power should it try to seize Taiwan — and maybe deter it from making the attempt.

The Raider could do so 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 into airspace guarded by enemy air defenses, something the Air Force’s B-1 and B-52 bombers can’t do.

And in comparison to the B-2 stealth bomber it will replace, the B-21 will use newer radar-absorbent materials that should give it an even smaller radar signature yet cost a lot less in upkeep 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 the less flexible and easy-to-update B-2 can’t, such as surveilling an adversary’s activities and relaying data on their movements to friendly forces, and serving as a command-and-control hub for ground forces or swarms of armed drones that can draw down enemy missiles and perform high-risk missions. The Raider may even be able to employ air-to-air missiles for self-defense or to aid friendly fighters.

When it comes to the Pentagon’s stealthy short-range F-35s, the existing planes can infiltrate hostile airspace but can only traverse 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 East Asia’s coastline where they’re vulnerable to the 2,200-plus missiles in China’s rocket force — many of which can hit moving ships.

The B-21, in contrast, can launch strikes from the North American mainland or more distant islands like Hawaii or Diego Garcia. That means even a Pearl Harbor-like first strike on U.S. air bases in East Asia wouldn’t prevent a powerful American retaliatory capability in the first days of a war. (China’s military grasps the benefit of long-range stealth bombers in the Pacific context and is developing its own Raider-like stealth bomber intended to expand its strike range.)

That isn’t to say the Raider program should be written a blank check. Significant challenges remain in the systems integration phase, and greater public scrutiny could reveal other issues. Air Force leadership has made no secret that it would prefer to ultimately acquire upward of 145 B-21s; Congress should only expand the Raider buy if it demonstrates satisfactory performance as it’s rolled out across the mid-2020s.

Nonetheless, the B-21 appears to have a sound concept and has been developed without cost overruns and only relatively minor delays. It seems likely to be more flexible, upgradable and cost-efficient than the aircraft it’s replacing. That provides hope not only for this new aircraft, but also for the ability of the Pentagon to right the ship for other future systems.