(Washington, D.C.) The U.S. Air Force might make special new efforts to massively surge-produce new B-21s at an accelerated pace as part of a maneuver to mitigate what service leaders believe is a substantial bomber deficit.
As the first-of-its-kind B-21 stealth bomber prepares for its first few test flights in coming months, many suspect the new stealth platform is quite possibly a paradigm-changing breakthrough platform introducing unprecedented stealth characteristics, computing, sensing and weapons technologies.
Maj. Gen. James Peccia, Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget, told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript. confirmed to reporters that two B-21s are now being built in anticipation of a first flight.
The pace of technological change now informing new Russian and Chinese emerging weapons programs could correctly be described as something commanding attention at the Pentagon. With a global technological environment in which fast-arriving AI-enabled sensing, targeting, weaponry and air defenses introduce new threats quickly, some wonder if the B-21 will be able to stay in front of yet-to-exist enemy weapons and air defenses years from now. If the B-21 is the most advanced and superior stealth platform ever to exist, will that still be true in 10 years, as new enemy air defenses continue to arrive? Will B-21 air superiority hold up in the future and withstand the test of time when faced with evolving stealth-detecting enemy air defenses?
B-21 - Any Target Anywhere in the World, At Risk
While of course virtually no specifics are available regarding the actual technological composition of the B-21 for security reasons, Air Force senior weapons developers have for many years said the aircraft will be able to hold any target, anywhere in the world, at risk … anytime. The question is, if this is true at the moment, will it still be true in 10 years. “Yes,” according to Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies in a video intv.
The reason for this, Ray said, is because the B-21 is architected in a “modular” style using common technical standards and “open architecture” to quickly integrate any available upgrades. In many cases, software upgrades can introduce new weapons capacity, improve computer processing speed and sensor data analysis. The concept is to of course ensure that the platform is positioned to stay in front of new threats as they emerge, such as longer-range air defenses with more sensitive radar, digital networking and greater ranges of detection frequencies. Russian-built S-500s, for example, are believed to operate at vastly improved ranges with much higher degrees of sensitivity and targeting capacity. Many of these new radars are now meshed together as nodes within an integrated digital web able to hand off and share returns, sensor data and targeting information.
Assessing and refining the technical architecture of the B-21 is now underway at the Air Force Test Center, where developers are working to prepare for the new aircraft’s first official test flight. The first set of preliminary test flights are expected to heavily focus upon the sensing and computing sophistication of B-21 with a mind to how it can improve.
“These systems are so complex. There will be basic airframe evaluations, proof or expansion of the flight envelope and assessments of all of the mission systems that need to be proved out. With every aircraft we have to feel confident that we meet our design specifications. With a program like the B-21 we are doing firsts,” Major General Christopher Azzano, Commander, Air Force Test Center, told Warrior in an interview earlier this year.
Upgrades to the long-serving, combat-tested B-1 bomber may yet live even more years into the future before sunsetting in greater numbers, to address what the Air Force sees as a massive bomber deficit as it ramps up production of the new B-21 in coming years.
“We will have 125 total bombers before the B-21 begins to join the force in significant numbers, creating the smallest number of bombers we have had since 1940. I do think we will see periods in the next ten to fifteen years where the force gets smaller before it gets bigger,” Major General Mark E. Weatherington, Commander, Eighth Air Force, and Commander, Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a video interview last year.
The aim is to manage sustainment costs and the relative utility of upgrading and keeping older B-1 planes, while ensuring the needed size of the bomber fleet does not get badly compromised.
“The risk in the bomber portfolio is high. We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to accelerate the B-21 capability as quickly as we can. But in the short term, the answer is no,” Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements. told members of Congress, as cited in a report from Air Force Magazine. “We can’t get the B-21 fast enough.”
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While the Air Force has not specified a timetable, the B-1 is not likely to be fully retired until the 2030s or later depending upon the service’s B-21 production capacity. Woven into this equation is the reality that the B-1 has been receiving the largest technical overhaul in its history, an integrated effort which includes new weapons, engines, networking technologies and avionics.
The engines are being refurbished to retain their original performance specs, and the B-1 is getting new targeting and intelligence systems, Air Force officials told The National Interest as far back as a few years ago.
The B-1 has in recent years also been getting a new Integrated Battle Station which includes new aircrew displays and communication links for in-flight data sharing, technology which Air Force weapons developers say includes “machine-to-machine interface for rapid re-tasking or weapons retargeting.”
Another B-1 upgrade called The Fully Integrated Targeting Pod connects the targeting pod control and video feed into B-1 cockpit displays. The B-1 will also be able to increase its carriage capacity of 500-pound class weapons by 60-percent due to Bomb Rack Unit upgrades.
The B-1 bomber, while lesser known when compared with stealthy B-2 bombers, has been dropping a large percentage of ordnance in recent years
The B-1 which had its combat debut in Operation Desert Fox in 1998, went to drop thousands of JDAMs during the multi-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.The B-1 can hit speeds of MACH 1.25 at 40,000 feet and operates at a ceiling of 60,000 feet. It fires a wide-range of bombs, to include several JDAMS: GBU-31, GBU-38 and GBU-54. It also fires the small diameter bomb-GBU-39.
More than 100 B-21s
Gen. Arnold Bunch, Commander of Air Force Material Command, is among the service’s senior leaders managing the production and ultimate sustainment of the B-21. He believes the industrial base capacity, and success of the program thus far, are such that the Air Force “could go higher” than 100 B-21s, possibly much higher, according to a report in Air Force Magazine
“As I look at how we set up the mission system and the open systems architecture for the B-21, we are going to retain those aircraft for a long period of time because I am going to bring new technologies in. For small fleets it is hard to get a vendor base,” Bunch told Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, in a video interview as far back as last year.
The first two B-21s are actually “in production” and slated to arrive in coming years, according to Air Force officials cited in Air Force Magazine,
“Once we get through design and get the first ones delivered, we can adjust production rates and maybe affect them that way, but we have to get through the engineering with solid discipline,” Air Force acting acquisition executive Darlene Costello, told Congress according to the Air Force Magazine report.
The timing of just how fast and steadily new B-21s arrive continues to bear heavily upon current Air Force decisions regarding the pace and scope of B-1 retirement. The process has been an evolving one for the Air Force, which seeks to optimize the size and effectiveness of the bomber fleet in a steady fashion over the next few years until the full scope of just how fast B-21s can arrive is better understood. For example, the Air Force Magazine report suggests that the Air Force may slow the pace of B-1 retirements, citing current service plans to keep 45 B-1 bombers until it has sufficient information about prospects for the pace, scope and size of the arriving B-21 fleet.
Air Force developers expect the first official B-21 flight, scheduled for sometime next year, will yield crucial results regarding any possible need for adjustments and the prospects for a production acceleration.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.