The U.S. Air Force has given us our first glimpse of what will hopefully become American’s next stealth bomber. Originally designated the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), the aircraft will now be called the B-21. Why is this announcement today such a big deal? Because it’s as much about the B-21's struggle to even get built as it as about what it could mean for America’s defense apparatus.
A New Bomber For A New Set Of Strategic Problems
The B-21 is a critical part of America’s air power future, and at the very least it represents a partial panacea for emerging area-denial and anti-access (AD/A2) capabilities—in other words, things that deny U.S. forces the ability to come within hundreds or even thousands of miles of an enemy’s territory.
Today these high-end capabilities are being developed and deployed by countries like China and Russia, but they will soon be available to others as well.
These capabilities include advanced integrated air defense systems with long-range engagement capabilities able to target and shoot down aircraft from hundreds of miles away, as well as increasingly capable ballistic missiles that can put America’s fixed installations and even our carrier strike groups at risk throughout an entire region. A country with a strong AD/A2 capability has created an invisible fortress wall that can be pushed out thousands of miles from its territorial borders.
With this in mind, the B-21 is designed to be able to penetrate the most advanced enemy air defenses after traveling thousands of miles from the safety of its home base. Once it arrives in its operating area the B-21 will have a devastating and diverse payload of weaponry. In other words, it has the ability to beat the enemy’s AD/A2 capability through stealth and guile.
Very much an enabler for other air combat systems, its first mission during wartime could be to help kick down an enemy’s metaphorical door and break their ability to defend themselves by pinpointing and attacking their communications apparatus. This will eventually allow other aircraft an avenue to begin striking their own targets.
The B-21 will not only be a conventional and eventually a nuclear bomber in the traditional sense, but it will also have many other roles and capabilities. These will likely include working as a forward deployed sensor and communications node, a surveillance and electronic warfare platform, as well as potentially controlling drone swarms in the not so distant future. It could even have an unmanned capability one day.
Make sure to read all about the Long Range Strike Bomber here for more details and full context:
What We Know And What We Don’t
As for what we can learn from today’s announcement, the image distributed is interesting at it deviates from Northrop Grumman’s “cranked kite” flying wing design which has been used on the X-47B demonstrator and shown in the company’s past LRS-B renderings. Instead, what is shown is a large standard flying wing with a simplified “W” shaped trailing edge.
This aircraft is startlingly similar to the original Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) design, dubbed the High Altitude Penetrator from the early 1980s, before the USAF required the design to be able to penetrate enemy air defenses at low altitudes. As a result of this requirement the fuselage was tweaked a bit and the stealth bomber to be’s empennage had extra chevrons and a “beaver tail” added to it. This aircraft would eventually become the B-2 Spirit.
Northrop Grumman has a long history of low observable aircraft design and for the last two decades they have focus on wide-spectrum stealth concepts based around flying wings. The omission of the cranked kite design, leaving angles and individual structural components to a minimum would likely maximize broad-band low-observability especially against lower-frequency radars. Additionally, the aircraft’s longer outboard wing sections would likely help increase endurance and operating altitude.
Very similar stealth bomber design concept renderings have been distributed by the Boeing-Lockheed team over the past few years. Still, we have to take this released conceptual rendering as just that—a rendering. Exactly how close it will adhere to the final design remains unknown.
The image does not even include the aircraft’s exhaust, which will almost certainly be diffused over the rear of the aircraft’s upper fuselage, much like the B-2, to minimize infrared and radar signature, especially from lower viewing angles. The rendering also gives us no real specificity as far as the design’s proportions, number of engines, range or payload. It is widely assumed that this new bomber will be smaller than the existing B-2 and carry a smaller payload. It is even very possible that it will have two engines instead of four.
The B-21 designation makes a lot of sense marketing-wise but may upset the most extreme military aviation aficionados out there. The “21" in B-21 is clearly there for marketing purposes, signifying that it is the bomber of the 21st century. It is also interesting that the first lot of production aircraft will include 21 units.
The B-21 designation deviates from the USAF’s modern bomber designation system that has included B-1 and B-2, with B-3 being the predicted designation for the LRS-B and the failed Next Generation Bomber and 2018 Bomber initiatives that came before it.
The truth is the Pentagon’s aircraft designation systems have never made cohesive sense. The B-21 is named so because of marketing, especially to lawmakers who control the purse strings on Capitol Hill, and the young but essential program needs all the help it can get.
The First Battle Is On Capitol Hill
The USAF announced the winner of the LRS-B in October after a years long struggle between the mega consortium of Boeing-Lockheed and the builder of America’s last bomber and master of flying-wing designs, Northrop Grumman.
Aside from who was going to design and build the LRS-B, little else was disclosed during the contract award press conference. To this very day we still don’t even know who will make the jet engines for this new design.
Making matters worse, some of the LRS-B program’s momentum was lost in the public eye and in the minds of Washington lawmakers, lobbyists and bureaucrats when Boeing-Lockheed partnership formally protested the contract award. This resulted in a three month long stoppage of work on the still very newly awarded contract.
Just recently, the decision to award Northrop Grumman the LRS-B contract was upheld against the protest and Northrop Grumman was allowed again to begin work on the project. In the meantime Northrop Grumman ran a glitzy ad campaign dubbed “America Wins” that helped keep the new bomber in the spotlight, but still damage has been done and the struggle to actually get the new bomber built in meaningful number is already mounting.
Many have called for more details to be released about the LRS-B in order to gain Washington’s buy-in and not see the program fall to the budgetary and special interests axe. Then yesterday, the dwindling public momentum behind the LRS-B came to a head when Sen. John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, viciously lashed out at the Air Force over the LRS-B and the format in which the contract was awarded.
The veteran senator from Arizona has led the fight to tank other Pentagon aircraft programs before, and here went as far as saying he won’t authorize the program under its current cost-plus contract. Defense News quotes McCain as saying:
“My biggest concern is the cost-plus provision in the contract. I will not stand for cost-plus contracts. They will say its because they’re not sure of some of the things they need in the development stage. Fine, then don’t bid on it until you do know. If you have a cost-plus contract, tell me one time that there hasn’t been additional costs, then I would reconsider. The mindset in the Pentagon that still somehow these are still acceptable is infuriating.”
What McCain is referring to is the scenario where the primary contractor adds up its bills for the project and then makes a margin over those bills, regardless of how close to a target price they may be.
In other words, cost overruns are passed right onto the Pentagon.
Under a fixed-price type of contract, the USAF would agree to pay for the contractor’s estimate of what something would cost; in the B-21s case, $564 million per plane, or a certain amount for development with the contractor having to eat all of the overruns or at least share in their cost.
(The KC-46, America’s next tanker based on the Boeing 767 airframe, uses a fixed-price type of model, and at face value it has saved the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars to date. Some think tanks also say fixed-price contracts won’t keep costs down in the long run.)
The Air Force has countered saying that just the development of the bomber will be cost-plus, but the actual procurement of five individual lots of some 21 aircraft each will be a fixed-price contract. Still, the Air Force itself has said that massive risk reduction has occurred in recent years when it comes to development of the B-21. Although the service says this has not included a flying prototype per se, it is likely that flying test articles and even classified operational aircraft have flown with many concepts and components that will find themselves in one form or another on the actual B-21 aircraft.
Protecting The B-21 From Its Own Masters?
McCain’s level of disgust with the LRS-B contract is puzzling, as the program has been ongoing for many years and the contract format and award had loomed for over a year publicly before being executed. Surely the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee was briefed into the program on a classified level. If not, why did he not demand it, as his committee had to approve the spending on the program for years?
Even if portions of the B-21s risk reduction expenses have been buried in the classified budget he should know full well about the program and its business construct. So why is this an issue just now, months after the contract was awarded?
McCain also chimed in with vigor on the Air Force’s highly secretive veil over the program, especially in regards to their questionable need to guard seemingly harmless pieces of information like who is building the B-21's engines, saying:
“Someone, somewhere is going to see some engines being made and say, ‘Hey, it could be at Pratt & Whitney or Rolls-Royce, or wherever the hell that is. I mean some of this is just stupid. So, it’s kind of the classic Pentagon, I don’t know what it is, but we will find out who makes the engines... If someone wants to build an engine for an airplane that requires congressional authorization, then it must be known who’s making it and under what circumstances.”
The Air Force has come to realize that they really do need to start releasing more information about the LRS-B design and its capabilities if they want it to have any chance at making it into mass production. Just last week they announced that more details would be released in March.
With all in mind, it is interesting that the Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James released not just the designation of the new bomber, but a general image showing its configuration today at the Air Force Association Symposium.
It seems like the pressure for the Air Force to start the public relations offensive for the new bomber had pushed up previously decided timelines.
If the Air Force thinks the LRS-B makes sense for America, it needs to say why it’s are so confident in the aircraft’s final price tag. Clearly the program does compete with other key Air Force initiatives, some of the very controversial, namely the F-35. But frankly, the Air Force needs a new multi-mission long-range stealth weapons and sensor platform as much, if not much more than, it needs a short-ranged stealthy fighter of questionable capabilities.
Keeping the bomber program highly classified may help save it from being axed due to competing priorities with overlapping capabilities, but that tactic can only last so long before it kills the bomber itself.
Top photo credit Jim Cooke/Gawker