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    U.S. Air Force’s B-21 Raider Fleet Faces Strategic Cap Decisions Amid Technological Shifts

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    The B-21 Raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony December 2, 2022 in Palmdale, Calif. Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability. (U.S. Air Force photo)

    The B-21 Raider, the United States Air Force’s latest advancement in stealth bomber technology, has been the subject of intense speculation and strategic calculation as senior officials weigh the number of units to be procured against the backdrop of rapid technological change and fiscal constraints.

    Gen. CQ Brown Jr highlighted the B-21 Raider as an example of successful design implementation for the Air Force under “Action Order D” of his goal to Accelerate Change. Image 2 of 2” by U.S. Air Force is licensed under CC CC0 1.0

    The current commitment stands at 100 aircraft, with a possibility to reassess this number in the mid-2030s.

    During testimonies to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin and Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore Jr. respectively outlined the preliminary acquisition plan.

    The B-21 Raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony December 2, 2022 in Palmdale, Calif. Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability. (U.S. Air Force photo)

    “I think we’re not going to reach that number until probably the mid-2030s and beyond,” Gen. Allvin stated, indicating that future technological advancements might augment the fleet.

    Rockwell B-1B ‘Lancer’ and a Boeing F/A-18E ‘Super Hornet’” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    The B-21 Raider, which first took flight in November of the previous year, is envisioned to modernize and ultimately replace the aging B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers.

    “So the commitment right now is to 100 aircraft. That takes us for procurement into the late ’30s,” Lt. Gen. Moore highlighted, adding that the decision to expand the fleet as it would be made at a time when the security environment is not fully foreseeable.

    Despite calls from the Global Strike Command and think tanks for a larger fleet of at least 225 advanced long-range bombers to maintain strategic advantage, cost considerations have prompted a cautious approach.

    Each B-21 estimated to come with a hefty price tag of around $700 million.

    The B-21’s design incorporates an open systems architecture to accommodate future technological capabilities swiftly, a necessary feature to ensure its relevance in a rapidly evolving threat landscape.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-4 – 82-1069 ‘Spirit of Indiana’ – AND – 61-006, Old Soldier II – AND – 60-008 Lucky Lady IV – Boeing B-52H Stratofortress BUFF at KBAD Barksdale AFB Defenders of Liberty Airshow” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Meanwhile, the Raider will not only deliver conventional and nuclear munitions but also operate alongside the venerable B-52 Stratofortress, slated to stay in service into the 2040s.

    Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivers remarks at the U.S. Air Force B-21 Raider unveiling ceremony, Palmdale, Calif., Dec. 2, 2022. (DoD photos by Chad J. McNeeley)

    While the Air Force remains tight-lipped about the production rate during the Low-Rate Initial Production phase, it is clear that achieving the minimum fleet of 100 Raiders by 2039 would require a steady production cadence of six to seven bombers annually.

    Northrop Grumman, the aerospace firm awarded the B-21 contract, has been working on the bomber using cutting-edge digital engineering practices and advanced manufacturing techniques.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-10 – 88-0331 ‘Spirit of South Carolina’ at KBAD Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Airshow” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    As the B-21 inches toward operational service, it has also emerged that Northrop Grumman has been contracted to support the B-2 fleet through 2029 with a $7 billion deal, signaling the possible extension of the B-2’s service life should there be delays with the Raider’s rollout.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Stealth Bomber, AV-10 – 88-0331 ‘Spirit of South Carolina’ at KBAD Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Airshow” by AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has indicated that while the B-21 program is on track, he routinely warns that unforeseen problems could arise, which might necessitate keeping the B-2 in service longer than planned.

    Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber – AV-17-20-92-0700 ‘Spirit of Florida’” by TDelCoro is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Air Force has previously mentioned that the B-2 has the structural integrity to fly into the 2040s if necessary.

    Relevant articles:
    The U.S. Air Force May Only Get 100 B-21 Raider Stealth Bombers, The National Interest
    The B-21 Raider Question: How Many Bombers?, nationalinterest.org
    Northrop Gets $7 Billion for B, Air & Space Forces Magazine
    B-21 Raider: The Stealth Bomber the Air Force Needs Right Now, The Heritage Foundation

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