As both Russia and China continue to modernize and develop their air defense networks as part of their respective Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategies, the United States military is devoting more and more attention to efforts deigned to penetrate these systems.
The Air Force has been exploring new operating concepts designed to improve the ability of its personnel and equipment to operate in contested environments, while it and the rest of the military’s aviation community are increasingly turning to stealth aircraft such as the F-35 as a primary means for overcoming sophisticated enemy air defenses.
The Air Force’s bomber fleet has also been the recipient of increased attention in recent years, with one of the most salient questions centered around the potential size of that fleet in the future. This question has in particular revolved around the number of new B-21 bombers that the Air Force intends to purchase, a number which has seemingly been creeping up over the years.
B-21 Bomber, Origin Story
The origins of the Air Force’s newest bomber lie in the service’s 2004 Next-Generation Bomber (NGB) program that aimed to develop a new bomber platform that would enter service by 2018. That program was eventually paused in 2009 when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made clear that he believed a more thorough review of the requirements for and capabilities of the new bomber were needed. By 2011, the NGB program was reborn in the form of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program. The LRS-B program remained heavily classified until 2015 when the Air Force awarded the contract for the development of what would come to be referred to as the B-21 Raider to Northrup Grumman. By 2019, construction of the first B-21 was reportedly underway.
Given the sensitive nature of the technology incorporated into the B-21, the Air Force has been particularly tight-lipped regarding the aircraft. Some details about the aircraft, however, have been hinted at. The B-21 will reportedly make use of the same Pratt & Whitney engine found on the F-35, for example, as part of the Air Force’s efforts to leverage technology from other programs. In addition, the Raider is reported to be capable of undertaking missions autonomously by shutting off all external communications and making use of its own on-board reconnaissance, targeting, and self-defense capabilities, and will be capable of firing a range of conventional and nuclear munitions.
The biggest question surrounding the B-21 outside of any specifics about the aircraft itself may be how many the Air Force intends to purchase. Initially, the Air Force reported a desire to purchase between 80 to 100 Raiders before committing to a request for 100 B-21s. More recently, the Air Force has mentioned plans for a total purchase of 145 of the new bombers as part of an envisioned bomber fleet of 220 aircraft. That figure would include 75 of the existing B-52H bombers currently operated by the Air Force. The B-21 would, meanwhile, replace the Air Force’s inventory of B-1s and its fleet of 21 B-2s, which are currently the service’s most capable bombers for penetrating enemy air defenses. A purchase of 145 B-21s, then, would see a roughly sevenfold increase in the Air Force’s fleet of penetrating stealth bomber aircraft.