US Air Force bombers: long-range precision strike


The US Air Force’s 157 operational bombers – 75 Boeing B-52H Stratofortesses, 62 Rockwell B-1B Lancers and 20 Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirits – equip five bomb wings. A new stealth bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, is to enter service in the mid-2020s.

All 157 bombers belong to the Global Strike Command’s Eighth Air Force. General Timothy Ray, its new commander, said Global Strike Command is America’s force provider of “long-range precision strike, both nuclear and conventional.”

General Ray is responsible for equipping and training bombers that will be put under operational command of US Strategic Command (for nuclear deterrence and operations) and five regional combatant commands (for conventional missions) as an “enduring signature of strength and power around the world”, or, if called upon, in combat.

America’s national defence strategy now prioritises readiness against great power competitors. To implement this, bombers have to be able to carry out missions during which they will be opposed by sophisticated air defences. General Robin Rand, former GSC commander, told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in Washington on March 22, 2018, that in peace time: “Bombers provide decision-makers the ability to demonstrate resolve through generation, dispersal and deployment.”

Strategic force modernisation is a priority again for the US military for the first time since the 1980s. This has shaped the future of the bombers, reflected in the classified Bomber Vector planning document published earlier this year. The FY2019 budget request set out how the B-1B and B-2 will leave service as they are replaced by B-21s, leaving B-52s still flying.

Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider

Development of the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber was fully funded at $2.3 billion in the FY2019 budget request. While there have been reports from congressional sources that the Raider has encountered problems in areas such as wing design, engine mounts and engine intakes, the B-21 remains on schedule to achieve initial operational capability in the mid-2020s.

On September 18 in Washington, General Ray said: “It’s a very close-hold programme.

After my review [as incoming GSC commander] last week, I am confident we are doing very well with the programme. It is too early to show anyone anything in particular. I am very comfortable with it …The B-21 has the right attributes that set us up for success, the ability to field a force with a rapid capability to be upgraded and modified.”

Speaking to the HASC in Washington on March 22, Ray’s predecessor, General Rand, also stressed the importance of this rapid upgrade capability to the programme. He said: “From the outset, the B-21 has been designed to have an open architecture, which enables it to integrate new technology and respond to future threats.”

Open architecture is central to how the Air Force sees the future value of the B-21.

It is not limited to software, but applies to rapid response in sensors, communications, electromagnetic signature and defensive capabilities. Even if a great-power competitor has similar or even superior technologies, the B-21 will be able to employ them in a way that its opponents may not be able to do.

Ray said: “All of these things are moving much faster than our acquisition approach”, hence the need for an open architecture to enable upgrades.

The Air Force’s goal of 100 B-21s is a target figure, rather than an official requirement approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

According to an Air Force future force-sizing estimate released on September 17, to be capable of meeting the requirements of the National Defense Strategy will require an additional five squadrons of bombers. Retired Lieutenant General David Deptula has called for the B-21’s planned production to be increased to 180.

Cost is critical to B-21 development.

Ray said: “We can’t afford to build a shinier version of what we have right now …Make this thing affordable.” The future of the B-21 depends on the programme being able to produce aircraft at a unit cost of $550 million (adjusted for inflation), preventing cost increases and schedule delays that have plagued other aircraft programmes, especially those designed for stealth. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) is responsible for managing the programme, and is using available technology (much of it originating in black-world classified programmes) and preventing changes to its design or requirements. Expressing his perspective of the B-21 programme when speaking in Washington on June 25, Randall Walden, head of the RCO, said: “This is about producing 100 bombers, not just about getting through development.”

That said, the B-21’s unit cost does not include upgrades introduced after development – for example, nuclear certification or crew-optional operation - something the Air Force first wanted in 1944, but that has remained out of reach since then.

Lt Gen Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s senior uniformed acquisition executive, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 18: “We’ve now completed the first software drop to go through the process, and we’re already working on the second drop.”

The B-21 will probably go through a critical design review before the end of the year, and will be assembled at Northrop Grumman’s facility within Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale California; the company’s Melbourne, Florida facility will also undertake work on the new bomber. Pratt & Whitney will design and produce the aircraft’s engines, though the number of engines used to power the B-21 remains classified. Flight-testing will be conducted by the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

On May 3, Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein announced the B-21 will be stationed at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, Ellsworth Air Force Base South Dakota and Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, the same bases as the B-1B and B-2 bombers it will replace. Goldfein’s announcement allayed Congressional concerns, although final basing decisions will not be made until 2019.

On March 22, Rand pointed out that B-21 fielding will involve new construction and facility renovation. He said: “Current bomber bases have infrastructure for operations, maintenance, munitions storage, security and training.”