The B-21: At $500 million each, is this a better bomber?

Northrop Grumman will build the new B-21 bomber. But many details about the bomber remain shrouded in secrecy.

US Air Force/Reuters
An artist drew the new B-21 stealth bomber.

On Friday, the US government announced that the Air Force’s next bomber would be manufactured by Northrop Grumman and named the B-21.

US Air Force Secretary Deborah James revealed the news at the annual Air Warfare Symposium. The bomber has been in development for some time, but the Air Force decided to keep it secret for national security reasons.

"The B-21 will allow the Air Force to operate in tomorrow’s high end threat environment," said Secretary James. "Our fifth-generation global precision attack platform will give our country a networked sensor-shoot capability that will allow us to hold targets at risk in a way the world – and our adversaries – have never, ever seen.”

The B-21, a nuclear-capable long range stealth bomber, will replace older Air Force bombers like the B-1 and B-52, reported the Washington Post.

"I am pleased that after years of delays we are back on track to acquiring this critical capability," said Rep. Randy Forbes (R) of Virginia, who chairs the House Armed Services’ Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. "Our nation needs a large fleet of next-generation bombers."

Very few specifics are known about the new stealth bomber.

The B-21 looks very similar to the B-2 and will employ existing technology, James said.

Building the bomber

It has been a rocky road thus far for the B-21, which faces more hurdles before it goes into production.

Although Northrop Grumman won the contract to build the B-21 in October, both Boeing and Lockheed protested the contract award, calling the selection process "fundamentally flawed." The Government Accountability Office reviewed the protest and did not uphold it.

The original contract provided Northrop Grumman with an estimated $80 billion to build 100 bombers. The Air Force said it intends to pay about half a billion dollars per bomber. Sen. John McCain told reporters that he would block a cost-plus contract if it came before Congress.

"I will not stand for cost-plus contracts. They will say it’s because they’re not sure of some of the things they need in the development stage," said Senator McCain. “The mindset in the Pentagon that still somehow these are still acceptable is infuriating.”

The Air Force responded that the cost-plus provision only applied to the initial research and development phase of the B-21 project, not the production of the bombers.

McCain also criticized what he considered inordinate levels of secrecy surrounding the new bomber. 

In addition to the names of the suppliers, the Air Force is also keeping a close hold on the value of the Oc. 27 contract award, as well as the bomber’s size, weight, payload and the extent of its stealth capabilities, USA Today reports.

McCain is not the only observer to criticize the Air Force for its lack of transparency on LRS-B. Retired Gen. John Michael Loh, who served as the chief of Air Combat Command, recently urged the Air Force to release additional details in order to drum up support for the costly program in the public eye and on the Hill.

“You are going to have to fight for LRS-B every day, every week, every month, every year, because there are people out there that are going to try to kill it, they are all over this town,” retired Loh said. “The sooner the Air Force can release the team, the industry team on LRS-B, the more support you are going to get. If you don’t do that, it isn’t going to survive.”...

The Air Force will unveil additional details about the secretive program in early March, Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements

The Air Force has requested a $120.4 billion budget for 2017.

In her "State of the Force" address, James said, "We have been downsizing for a long time in our Air Force and this simply must stop. And it is stopping."

The Air Force is keenly aware of the need to modernize. Earlier this month, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh acknowledged, "The platforms and systems that made us great over the last 50 years will not make us great over the next 50."

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