B-21 Raider Is An Investment in America’s Future: Developing a new military aircraft rarely comes cheap, but all things considered, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider will be worth every penny.
The long-range, heavy strategic bomber that is set to enter service by the end of the decade was designed to serve as a dual-capable penetrating strike stealth bomber able to deliver both conventional and nuclear munitions.
The advanced aircraft will be a component of a larger family of systems for conventional Long Range Strike, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, electronic attack, communication, and other capabilities. In addition, the Raider will be able to employ a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions.
Why the B-21 Raider Is Needed
As it enters service it will initially replace the Cold War-era B-1B Lancer, while it will operate alongside the B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress. Eventually, the B-21 Raider will supplant those latter two aircraft as well and will become the Air Force’s sole bomber.
B-21: Investment in America’s Future
The Air Force has estimated that the B-21 is likely to cost around $203 billion to develop, purchase and operate over the next 30 years. That is actually under budget, but it was also noted that the cost of the aircraft was capped at $550 million each in base year 2010 dollars, or $729.25 million in current dollars.
That figure was based on an average cost per unit over a production run of about 100 airplanes. Moreover, the early examples of any military aircraft will tend to cost the most – when the learning curve is the highest and when the most tweaks to a design will need to be made.
Progress Being Made
In April, the Department of the Air Force awarded $108 million to Northrop Grumman for advance procurement to support the B-21 Raider program. Those advance Advance procurement funds will directly support the acquisition of long lead items necessary to build the first lot of production B-21 aircraft. The award of advance procurement reaffirms the Air Force’s commitment to fielding what will become the backbone of the 21st-century bomber fleet.
“The B-21 Raider program is foundational to the Air Force’s operational imperative for an effective, long-range strike family of systems to guarantee our ability to strike any target, anytime, anywhere, even in the most contested environment,” explained Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. earlier this year.
“As the Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Raider is a standout example of the innovation and pursuit of game-changing technology that has characterized our service since its inception,” Brown continued. “The quality of the aircraft build, coupled with its open systems architecture design and built-in margin for future growth, will provide our warfighters the competitive advantage we’ll need to deter current and future conflicts, and fight and win if called upon to do so.”
The B-21 test aircraft that are currently being manufactured under the Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract with Northrop Grumman are being built on the same production line, using the same tooling, processes, and technicians that will eventually build the production aircraft.
“The B-21 test aircraft are the most production-representative aircraft, both structurally and in its mission systems, at this point in a program, that I’ve observed in my career,” added Randall Walden, Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director. “The right decisions are being made on this program to pave the way for a high-fidelity flight test campaign and an effective transition to production.”
B-21 Future Facilities
Though the Raider has yet to make its maiden flight, which is likely to occur next year, the facilities that will be used to support the aircraft are being readied at Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB), South Dakota – the future base that will house the fleet. The present timeline calls for the first of facilities to be ready by 2024, well in advance of when the first bombers are expected to be deployed to the base.
Ellsworth is currently home to the B-1B Lancer long-range bomber.
It was just a year ago that the United States Air Force had announced that Ellsworth was selected to be the initial B-21 operating base and formal training unit – thus the “schoolhouse” for the bomber. According to the justifications (“J-Books”) from the service’s fiscal year 2023 (FY23) budget, three military construction projects are now underway, with a collective cost of $328 million.
These will include a two-bay Low Observables (LO) Restoration Facility, a Weapons Generation Facility, and a Radio Frequency Facility. The LO building, which is set to be finished by September 2024, will be climate-controlled, while it will reportedly also be equipped with filtration gear to support spray-on stealth treatments. The 95,000-square foot LO will have specialized equipment to ensure that the B-21s are sustained and maintained, even throughout the cold South Dakota winters.
The weapons build, where bombs and missiles will be assembled and readied to be loaded onto the aircraft, will be completed by February 2026. The completion date for the radio facility, which will eventually be used to test the B-21’s stealth capabilities prior to flight operations, is now pending, but it will likely be operational by the time the first Raiders arrive by the end of the decade.
The fiscal year 2022 Defense Appropriations Act (DAA) provided funding for five new military construction projects to support the B-21 mission at Ellsworth AFB. An environmental impact statement is set to begin this year to inform final decisions on the second and third main operating bases to bed down the entire B-21 fleet.
As announced by the Secretary of the Air Force in 2019, preferred locations for the second and third B-21 main operating bases are Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas, respectively.
Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.