Despite the F-35’s knack for grabbing headlines, an even more expensive aircraft has been steaming toward production to little fanfare: the B-21 Raider. Expected to serve as America’s go-to bomber platform for decades to come, the B-21 borrows from previous stealth platforms while incorporating new (and often not-yet-public) technologies intended to make it the premier deep penetration bomber on the planet. It’s slated to enter operation in as little as seven years and yet, all there’s been to show the public thus far is the same old artist’s rendering against a featureless background — the feature image above is actually the B-21’s predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
To give you a better understanding of just how unusual the B-21 program has been when compared to the Lockheed Martin helmed F-35 program, consider the timelines associated with each. The F-35 (originally the X-35) was announced as the winner of America’s “next top fighter” contest way back in 2009, a year before the B-21 project even entered its infancy — now, as the F-35 continues to work toward full operational capacity, the B-21 is apparently on track to reach an operational status at right around the same time as the fighters that will escort it. More impressive still, is how little about the new bomber has made its way to the public despite this expedited timeline.
According to officials, the B-21 design has already completed wind tunnel testing and is rapidly approaching Critical Design Review (CDR). That process plays an integral role in not only ensuring the aircraft can do what has been promised, but in marrying contractors to the various elements of the design for the acquisitions process. An aircraft is made of numerous complex components, many of which are sourced through a series of sub-contractors, each specializing in specific aspects of the construction of completed assemblies that will reach the air frame under Northrop Grumman’s purview.
“We haven’t done CDR yet [but] we are on our way to critical design review,” said the director and executive officer of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Randy Walden. “I suspect it will be done before the end of the year. That’s our plan today.”
“Any aircraft program that’s going through development, you’re going to do wind tunnel testing, we’re no different,” Walden said. “You’re going to go from an estimate on a piece of paper and drawings, to [doing] the right things that can get you to build out the system, and wind tunnel testing is one of them. And we’re following that line because it makes sense from an engineering point of view.”
The CDR is one of the final significant hurdles between an aircraft that’s being developed and an aircraft that’s being built — and with good reason. A completed CDR will provide program heads with many of the details the Pentagon (and tax payers) are eager to learn, such as an updated production risk assessment, an updated cost analysis, and the early stages of the aircraft’s sustainment plans. These bits of info will provide greater insight into the ultimate per-unit cost of the aircraft, as well as the hourly cost of operating each of them in the years to come — something of notable import as the Air Force continues to squabble with Lockheed about how to make the F-35’s operation costs affordable enough to fly them.
While the F-35 is on track to be the most expensive overall weapons program in history, in terms of per-unit price, it doesn’t hold a candle to the B-21. With a projected cost of approximately $550 million per aircraft, you could build five F-35s for each B-21.. and even that is subject to some debate. Northrop Grumman and the Pentagon have both been intentionally vague about the real price tag associated with the new bomber for fear that an understanding of the cost could provide America’s competitors with some insight into the level of capability to secretive bomber will offer.
“There are adversaries out there that want to know what we’re doing, and are probably going to great lengths to try to get to that level of insight,” Walden said. “We’re doing everything we can to prevent that.”
So for now, the public is left with nothing but assurances that the B-21 program is moving ahead exactly as it should, which would make for a welcome shift from the high-dollar defense initiatives of recent years. As for whether or not it can continue to live up to the vague optimism of defense officials’ statements, of course, is yet to be seen.
Feature image: U.S. Air Force maintainers assigned to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., inspect a B-2 Spirit before it takes off Oct. 28, 2017. The B-2 conducted a conducted a long-range mission to the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility this weekend. Long-range missions familiarize aircrew with air bases and operations in different geographic combatant commands, enabling them to maintain a high state of readiness and proficiency. | By Airman 1st Class Taylor Phifer; modified by the author