New B-21 Bomber or B-2 Mod 1?

B-21disclosureBy Hans M. Kristensen

The US Air Force has published the first official image of the next-generation bomber, formerly known as LRS-B (Long Range Strike Bomber). Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James revealed the image during her talk to the 2016 Air Warfare Symposium and gave it its official designation: B-21.

The “21” refers to the 21st Century and is intended to signal cutting-edge technology and capability. (Last time the Pentagon named a major defense program after the 21st Century was the SSN-21, the Navy’s Seawolf-class attack submarine. That program was canceled after only three boats.)

But just how different the B-21 is remains to be seen. The B-21 image shows the new bomber is not a significantly new design but looks more like an upgrade of the B-2. The main focus may have been to improve stealth and sensors. The Air Force has promised to disclose more details in March. They’ll certainly have to, if they want all the money they’re asking for it.

Preliminary Design Comparison

A preliminary comparison of the B-21 and B-2 bomber images suggests a very similar overall design, perhaps a little smaller, but with some significant modifications.

The most apparent difference is that the B-21 has a clean diamond-shaped center body section in contrast to the B-2’s more jagged rear center wing outline. The indents in the B-2’s rear center wing were created by the engine exhausts, a design feature that appears to be absent from the B-21. Engine exhaust is an important source of detectable heat. It is unknown if the engine exhausts have been moved below the body, integrated better into the edge of the wing, or omitted from the drawing because it is still a secret.

The elimination of the two engine exhaust wing-indents appears to have resulted in longer outer wing sections. And the wings on the B-21 appear a little more backswept than the wings on the B-2 resulting in a pointier aircraft nose, although that could be an optical illusion from the the quality of the images.

Another difference is that the air-intakes of the two engines have been extended forward and the edges angled, presumably to further reduce the aircraft’s radar signature.

Whatever else is “hidden under the hood,” the Air Force says that the design “allowed for the use of mature systems and existing technology while still providing desired capability” but with “an open architecture allowing integration of new technology and timely response to future threats across the full range of military operations.” (Emphasis added.)

It Doesn’t Have A Name

The new bomber has a designation (B-21) but not yet a name. The B-2 is called the Spirit. The B-52 is called the Stratofortress. The B-1 is called the Lancer. So Secretary James invited air force personnel to come up with a name. There are already many suggestions – some serious, some gung ho, others highly critical:

Defense News has a voting page and there is a growing list of suggestions in the comments to Secretary James’ announcement. Just to mention a few:

Spirit II, Deliverance, Thunderbolt, Sand Melter, Nightwing, Stormbringer, Flying W, Batwing, The Obama, Lemay, Regurgitating Pigeon, Flying Money-Pit, 2-Bad (the Cold War never really ended), Boondoggle, Budgetbuster, or Another Flying Turd from Northrop Hunk Of Overpriced Under-Performing Long Delayed Useless Waste of Taxpayers Money.

Or how about Resurrection? The Air Force didn’t get its 132 B-2 bombers, only 21 because they were too expensive. So now the Air Force tries again with what looks like a modified B-2: the B-21.

Looming Costs

The Air Force says each B-21 will “only” cost $564 million (in FY2016 money) plus $23.5 billion for overall program development, or a total of nearly $80 billion for 100 bombers.

The Air Force also claims the average procurement cost of each B-21 will be approximately a third of what the B-2 cost was.

These cost projections are already being met with considerable skepticism. Based on the Air Force’s own projections, according to a recent study, the cost of major Air Force aircraft programs “is projected to peak in FY2023 at nearly twice the FY2015 level of funding, adjusting for inflation, and is a driving factor behind the overall defense modernization bow wave.”

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that has to approve B-21 funding, has already voiced opposition to key provisions in the current B-21 contract. This should make for some interesting hearings on the Hill later this spring.

And new defense programs historically tend to go 20-30 percent over budget, which would put further pressure on the Air Force’s budget.

If so, the total cost for developing and producing 100 B-21 bombers might reach $96 billion to $104 billion. Oh, and don’t forget to add the costs of integrating the new B61-12 nuclear guided bomb and new nuclear air-launched cruise missile (LRSO) on the B-21 as well.

I just wonder what the Air Force’s fallback plan is. Delay? Fewer bombers? Less advanced design? Fewer fighters? Fewer satellites? Fewer tankers? No LRSO? Fewer ICBMs? Absent a major infusion of additional money into the defense budget, the Air Force’s current modernization plan seems unsustainable.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

14 thoughts on “New B-21 Bomber or B-2 Mod 1?

  1. Lots of conclusions from a non-scaled rendering. Comparing the B-21 to the B-2 is kinda like comparing the B-2 to the B-49, I guess. They are all “flying wing” designs and built by Northrop. One thing is for sure, the radar absorbing material (RAM) will be state-of-the-art and far easier to maintain than on the existing B-2. That’s a given.

    So, did the USAF not buy 132 B-2 bombers because they were too expensive or were they too expensive because we only bought 21? Would we be building a new bomber today, if we bought 132 B-2 bombers then? Expense is relative.

    The US Air Force has no backup plan. It wants the new B-21 bomber, the F-35 fighter, the KC-46 tanker, the TX trainer, the new Combat Search & Rescue helicopter, the new ICBM, new satellites, more cyber weapons and more airmen to support it all. All this will cost billions of dollars and, yet, be funded a year at a time. As the Air Force found with its decision to stand-down the A-10s, Congress determines all. It is a patriarchal Congress that will fund these programs, one year at a time.

    Frank Shuler

  2. >One thing is for sure, the radar absorbing material (RAM) will be state-of-the-art and far easier to maintain than on the existing B-2. That’s a given.

    “for sure… that’s a given.” methinks the lady doth protest too much

  3. I propose the name “Phoenix” for the B-21. I think we will see fewer bombers produced than planned. I think the B-21 will only have one bomb bay. I think it will use 2 F135-PW-100 engines. It will be smaller than the B-2. The rear trailing edge of the airplane is cleaner because it is not being configured for low level flight. I believe the engine exhausts will be placed under the wing. The engines will be high in the body. This will enable more cold air to mix with the exhaust and reduce the IR signature. I think they should remove any remote control features to cut down on the costs. I think the Air Force will build everything it is planning on, but it won’t get the numbers it wants for any of its programs, perhaps with the exception of Space and cyberwarfare. I think the Air Force will be producing a four-tiered layer of its aircraft: Stealth, high-end 4th generation, low-end 4th generation, and drones. I believe to make up for lower numbers in the B-21, F-22, and F-35, they will design and build new stealth drones for surveillance and weapon trucks for missiles and bombs. General Atomics will probably come up with the designs and contracts.

  4. This bomber is supposed to use preexisting technology to cut costs. It should basically be an improved B-2 with other mature technology added in. As long as they can refrain from trying to add capability to the plane than the program should cost what they say it will.

  5. Looks good. The Govt should make the manufacturer to the their budget. They should absorb the over runs. It will make them more efficient and not waste govt money

  6. I wonder if the engine exhausts will extend laterally across enough of the wing/body trailing edges to provide “distributed thrust” and thereby obviate the need for drag rudders to control yaw.

  7. AF says that 96 of the total of ~150 B-52, B1 and B2 bombers are combat coded today. The blended Mission Capable Rate (MCR) for all three bomber types is ~62%. That means that of the 96 bombers ~60 can fly at any given time.

    A2/AD more complex as more sophisticated systems are exported by Russia. In these environments the B-52 and B-1 are not sent, only B-2, and we have too few. Sixteen B-2’s are combat coded.

    Especially in the case of the B-52 and B-1, many of the original parts designed and produced in the 1950s (for the B-52) and the 1970s (for the B-1) are simply not produced anymore. Both airframes struggle with diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages in an effort to replace and repair aircraft parts and equipment that the original manufactures do not make anymore.

    We just have too few bombers. And the majority we have are very hard to maintain and are only able to function in low threat environments. Especially too few for advanced A2/AD environments.

    It wouldn’t be surprising to see more than 100 B-21’s built. It’s highly likely that with the newest, most economical and adaptive engines and new LO coatings they’ll be much more economical to fly than existing jets.
    We’ll just have to see how it pans out.

  8. Having been in USAF Procurement I can honestly say the Air Force lies a lot about costs. My Master’s thesis at the USAF AFIT school proved this. The services will present low buy costs based on unrealistic optimal buy numbers and minimal development costs to get Congressional approval to buy. The services then accept the criticism of cost over-runs and huge item costs as the purchase numbers are cut. One of the budget games in DC. It may be harder to track than a B-2, but will it get on target fast enough, able to loiter with a large enough bomb load for extended support, and have commanders willing to risk the high cost bombers in high threat environments that they will not use the B-2 in currently? The B-1 has a lot of abilities, like getting on station quickly, then having the endurance to spend hours supporting the troops, not just dropping a load of bombs and leaving. The “Bone” is also complex, wearing out, and unlike the 1950’s designed B-52’s, just isn’t up to 70-80 years of modifications and use. Such a one aircraft type capability is really going to reduce the use envelope!

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