The First Two B-21 Bombers Are Nearly Complete—and the Air Force Already Wants More of 'Em
Northrop Grumman builds the first two B-21 Raider bombers.
While these special B-21 are test units, the Air Force plans to eventually use the aircraft as replacements for the Air Force's B-1 and B-2 bombers.
The service is pushing for almost 50 percent more bombers than originally planned.
The first two B-21 Raider bombers - which, after all, can carry both nuclear and conventional weapons - are almost mechanically finished, but they still won't fly until 2022.
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The US Air Force (USAF) bomber program, which is scheduled to replace the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit by the end of the 2020s, is on track. This is a rarity in the military hardware sourcing world. Nevertheless, Congress calls on the service to accelerate the program; USAF doesn't move.
"Once we are done with the design and have the first ones shipped, we can adjust production rates and maybe affect them that way, but we have to do the engineering with solid discipline," said Darlene Costello, assistant director of acquisitions for the Air Force, during one House Armed Service Panel on June 8th.
One of the main reasons the Air Force does not want to accelerate the B-21 program is that while the bombers are almost mechanically finished, the service has not yet solidified the overall concept for the larger fleet. The service fears that speeding up operations could lead to parallelism problems.
Image credit: US Air Force
This is a circumstance in which an aircraft is built before the design is finalized. The Air Force purposely introduced parallelism with the F-35 fighter to make aircraft available to pilots earlier, with the idea that the service would eventually update the early production jets to match the final hardware and software standard.
Simultaneously, while getting pilots into F-35 cockpits faster, it also created the nightmare of hundreds of jets worldwide that were built to different hardware and software standards. As a result, the military needed billions of dollars in additional funding to bring the fighters to final standards. While the Air Force is keen to get the B-21 Raider to fly, it would prefer not to repeat such a complex and expensive headache again.
It has also expressed a keen interest in a future fleet of 225 heavy bombers. The Air Force currently has 158 bombers, including 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 continue to fly at least through the 2040s, if not the 2050s.
To accommodate a future fleet of 225 bombers, the Service would need 149 B-21 Raider bombers. That's a nearly 50 percent increase in demand from the Air Force's original plans to purchase approximately 100 of the planes for a maximum of $ 665 million.
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