The good news? 2006 saw a convergence of opinion within the USAF that a new long-range strike platform was needed. This is understandable given the B-52H Stratofortress fleet’s age (40-50 years), the B-1B Lancer’s internal power and electronics issues, both of these platforms’ low survivability against advanced air defense systems, and the B-2A Spirit stealth bomber’s very small numbers (21, of which 7-12 are generally operational). The unmanned J-UCAS program, meanwhile was seen as having inadequate range and payload (Boeing X-45C: 1,400 mile radius with 8 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs). The USAF decided that J-UCAS wasn’t a solution and pulled out, stalling American UCAV development until the Navy chose to go ahead with the carrier-based N-UCAS.
The bad news? They seemed to have little idea of exactly what they wanted in their bomber. The FY 2010 budget killed those plans anyway, but in September 2010, pressure to field a new bomber began to rise again. By the time fiscal year 2015 budget planning was in motion, both DoD and the Air Force seemed committed to making the program one of the service’s top 3 priorities.
Bad News, Good News
BAD NEWS: Officials disagreed on what kind of aircraft or missile should be designed to meet the requirement. A single plane? A missile? A family of aircraft? Manned or unmanned? A fighter-bomber like the FB-22/FB-23 idea to fill the FB-111’s vacant shoes, or a full-reach heavy bomber? A traditional land-based platform, or should it be carrier capable? Something comparable to the $2 billion B-2s to take on the toughest strike missions – or more of a utility aircraft like some of the “arsenal aircraft” proposals, aimed at replacing the B-52s with a platform based on a passenger jet or C-17 that would be more economical to fly and maintain? And where do proposals to simply re-engine the B-52 fleet fit in?
Until (unless) this was sorted out, R&D efforts could not succeed – and issues of future force structure remained open questions. An official Analysis of Alternatives was scheduled for Spring 2007, and the articles below chronicle developments in that process as it works its way forward. At this point, it appears certain that the new bomber will fly at subsonic speeds, and incorporate modern advances in stealth technology. Other elements are less clear.
THE GOOD NEWS? Key technologies, from stealth to control of unmanned combat aircraft, have taken many steps forward since this discussion began.
In September 2006, Inside Defense reported that the US Air Force was responding to ongoing Congressional pressure with a proposed $5 billion initial investment over the next few years. Their goal was to develop a next-generation long-range strike platform by 2018, with a fly-off before final platform selection.
All of this work was effectively brought to a halt when US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates announced his FY 2010 budget recommendations, and effectively suspended the competition. Research may continue in some related technologies under ‘black’ (non-public) budgets, but Sec 124 of the Senate’s S.1390 FY 2010 defense budget was clear:
“On May 7, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the termination of the next generation bomber aircraft program in the document of the Office of Management and Budget entitled ‘Terminations, Reductions, and Savings,’ stating that ‘there is no urgent need to begin an expensive development program for a new bomber’ and that ‘the future bomber fleet may not be affordable over the next six years’.”
By 2010, however, pressure began to rise again to field a new bomber. The breakthrough came, ironically, during a January 2011 speech about $150 billion in spending and program reductions:
“Finally, a major area of investment for the Air Force will be a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber. This aircraft – which will have the option of being piloted remotely – will be designed and developed using proven technologies, an approach that should make it possible to deliver this capability on schedule and in quantity. It is important that we begin this project now to ensure that a new bomber can be ready before the current aging fleet goes out of service. The follow on bomber represents a key component of a joint portfolio of conventional deep-strike capabilities – an area that should be a high priority for future defense investment given the anti-access challenges our military faces.”
On the contractor side, the program seemed to be shaping clearly, the picture has become muddy again.
On Jan 25/08, Boeing and Lockheed Martin announced that they would be cooperating on a bid of their own. Their team will perform studies and system development efforts “in pursuit of the anticipated U.S. Air Force Next Generation Bomber program.” Their collaborative research and development efforts will include will include work in advanced sensors, future electronic warfare solutions, better networked awareness of the broader battlefield, command and control issues for stealth platforms, and virtual warfare simulation and experimentation.
By March 2010, however, the joint team members were each going their own way. Boeing’s X-45C Phantom Ray provides them with a very useful test platform that could become a base for a new unmanned bomber, and Lockheed Martin’s own work on “black program” UAVs gives them growing expertise as well. They eventually got back together in 2013, once requirements began to clarify.
Northrop Grumman is another obvious contender, as the designer and manufacturer of the B-2A Spirit Stealth bomber. The firm has moved away from designing full-scale manned military aircraft in recent years, but there are persistent rumors of black (secret) program contracts related to the design of a next-generation bomber, and NGC’s leadership has indicated that black programs are a growing strategic focus for the company. Taken in tandem, it seems likely that Northrop Grumman is already working on a next-generation stealth bomber design. CFO James Palmer admitted as much during a financial conference in November 2013.
November 14/23: Inaugural Flight The US Air Force has announced that its B-21 Raider stealth bomber completed its inaugural flight on November 10. A video captured uploaded on X shows the futuristic warplane flying over Palmdale, California, where it has reportedly been under rigorous testing and development. Developed by Northrop Grumman, the B-21 is the first new bomber aircraft in the US Air Force inventory in more than 30 years.
December 6/22: Raider The United States on Friday unveiled the B-21 Raider, a high-tech stealth bomber that can carry nuclear and conventional weapons and is designed to be able to fly without a crew on board. The slickly choreographed ceremony at B-21 manufacturer Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, California opened with the US national anthem as older bombers roared over a crowd that included top US officials.
September 22/22: Roll Out The US Air Force announced that Northrop Grumman would roll out the B-21 bomber in the first week of December at its production facilities in Palmdale, California. “We last introduced a new bomber over 30 years ago. As we look to the threats posed by our pacing challenge; we must continue to rapidly modernize. The B-21 Raider will provide formidable combat capability across a range of operations in highly contested environments of the future,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr said.
July 4/22:Combined Mission Operations Planning Facility Federal Contracting won a $92.4 million deal for a B-21 Combined Mission Operations Planning Facility and Field Training Detachment Facility. Bids were solicited via the internet with three received. The B-21 is a new high-tech bomber slated to replace or complement the US Air Force’s aging fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2 bombers, and represents the first new US bomber design in 30 years. As with its predecessors, it is designed to be long-range, highly survivable and capable of carrying a mix of conventional and nuclear ordnance and be a key part of the US nuclear triad. Work will take place in South Dakota. Estimated completion date is September 7, 2024.
October 11/19: Squadron Reactivation The US Air Force reactivated the 420th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base for flight and ground testing of the next-generation bomber, the B-21 Raider. The squadron was organized under the 412th Test Wing at the base, and a ceremony marking the occasion was held on October 4, the Air Force announced on Wednesday. The first B-21 Raider bomber, the next-generation replacement for the B-1 and B-2 aircraft, is under development at Lockheed Martin facilities in nearby Palmdale, California. The B-21 is expected to enter service by 2025, and will replace the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit over time.
November 22/18: Base The US Air Force’s next-generation stealth bombers will be maintained at Tinker Air Base in Oklahoma and at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The B-21 Raider previously referred to as the Long-Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, is expected to be delivered in the mid-2020s. The air bases will be responsible to coordinate all maintenance and sustainment efforts of the new aircraft, which includes leading testing and evaluation efforts. This decision comes as the Northrop Grumman-made B-21 is expected to enter its critical design review milestone next month. The Air Force plans to buy a total of 100 Raiders as replacement to its fleet of B-2s and B-1Bs, which are expected to be retired by 2040. “From flight testing the X-15 to the F-117, Edwards AFB in the Mohave Desert has been at the forefront of keeping our Air Force on the cutting edge,” says Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen David L. Goldfein. “Now, testing the B-21 Raider will begin another historic chapter in the base’s history.”
May 17/17: The Pentagon’s inspector general has opened an investigation as to whether the USAF has imposed unnecessary additional secrecy on its B-21 bomber program. Last year, the Air Force rebuffed requests, including from Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, to reveal basic information such as the value of the development contract awarded to lead contractor Northrop Grumman or the amount of the fee set aside to encourage meeting program goals, citing their potential value to adversaries. Now, the DoD’s watchdog office will review and submit a report to Congress within the next six months aiming to ascertain whether there is the right mix of balanced program classification and transparency.
March 9/17: Vice chief of the staff of the USAF Gen. Stephen Wilson has announced that the preliminary design review for the B-21 Raider has been completed. The progress on the new long-range bomber came as Wilson spoke to a House Armed Services Committee hearing on nuclear deterrence where he told lawmakers that he receives regular updates on the uber-classified program and is happy with its progression. Since the award of the B-21 contract to Northrop Grumman in October 2015, news has been scarce on the program’s development as the company and Air Force try to protect any information about the bomber’s design and development from leaking out into the press or to potential adversaries.
October 27/16: While heavily redacted, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published a 52-page ruling on Boeing’s protest of the B-21 competition won by Northrop Grumman. Quoting “significantly lower proposed prices” for initial production, the agency found Boeing would be hard-pressed to match Northrop’s bid to work on the $80 billion stealth-bomber program. Boeing has slammed the GAO’s analysis as flawed.
September 21/16: The USAF’s new long-range strike bomber has officially been named the B-21 Raider. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James made the announcement on Monday in what is a tribute to the legacy of WW2’s Doolittle Raiders rather than a reference to the Indiana Jones movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The Doolittle Raiders are known for their surprise attack against Japan during on April 18, 1942, which forced the Japanese to recall combat forces for home defense, and boosted morale among Americans and US allies abroad.
September 4/15: Northrop Grumman and competitor coalition Lockheed Martin and Boeing submitted designs for the new long range bomber, with a decision expected in October. The first versions produced are expected to be manned craft, with unmanned craft coming a few years later. Designs are said to be more detailed at the stage than is typical.
* DID – Carrier UCAVs: The Return of UCAS. N-UCAS is a funded Northrop Grumman project.
* Bloomberg (Dec 6/13) – U.S. Bomber Planes at $81 Billion Seen 47% More Than Plan. USAF estimate is $55 billion for 100 planes. CSBA says $81 billion, incl. $20 billion R&D. Stimson Center says $68.2 billion. Bloomberg Government says $78.4 million.
* Wall St. Journal (Nov 3/13) – Pentagon Toils to Build a Bomber on a Budget [subscription req’d]
* Forbes (Oct 29/13) – Why A Boeing-Lockheed Martin Long Range Strike Bomber Team Will Be Hard To Beat. By Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
* Lockheed Martin (Oct 25/13) – Boeing, Lockheed Martin Team for U.S. Air Force Bomber Program. Again. Boeing would be the prime contractor.
* James Hasik (July 10/13) – Is the USAF’s Next Bomber Program Way Too Ambitious?
* Aviation Week (June 30/11) – What We Are Allowed to Know About the Bomber. Short answer: not much. Optionally manned, stealthy, plans for 80-100.
* Joint Forces Quarterly (#60, Q1 2011) – Long Range Conventional Strike: A Joint Family of Systems [PDF]. Good article, penned by Northrop Grumman analysts; see also Aviation Week Ares coverage.
* Aviation Week Ares (March 18/11) – Where The 2018 Bomber Went
* Aviation Week Ares (Feb 18/11) – A Quick Look At The USAF’s New Bomber Requirements
* US Department of Defense (Jan 6/10) – Statement on Department Budget and Efficiencies. As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
* Defense News (Sept 15/10) – P&W Pitches Engine For Long-Range Strike. Their PW9000, part of a new class of engines called “geared turbofans” that offer a wider variable thrust range, and much better fuel efficiency.
* NDIA’s National Defense magazine (Sept 15/10) – Air Force Under Pressure to Fund New Bomber.
* CSBA Report (Sept 14/10) – Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike [PDF]
* Defense News (Sept 13/10) – USAF Secretary: New Bomber Critical for the U.S.. But it would be built for conventional strike, and only certified for the nuclear mission later, if at all.
* Aviation Week (March 1/10) – A Lockheed/Boeing Breakup Over Bomber? There’s a $200 million request in the FY 2011 budget that lays the foundations for a bomber program revival, but Boeing Phantom Works’ President says cooperation with Lockheed Martin is “in stasis”.
* Aviation Week Ares (Dec 16/09) – New Bomber Claims New Missions. ISR, and possibly directed energy weapons?
* Government Executive (May 14/09) – Gates says next-generation bomber might fly without pilot
* Gvernment Executive (May 21/09) – Commander agrees with decision to delay new bomber. In light of upcoming START nuclear treaty negotiations with Moscow, expected to start in a few months.
* DID (April 6/09) – Gates Lays Out Key FY 2010 Budget Recommendations. The program is effectively canceled. “We will not pursue a development program for a follow-on Air Force bomber until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology.”
* Aviation Week Ares (Sept 10/08) – Northrop Grumman Boosts New Bomber
* Military.com (June 7/08) – Secret Plan for ‘Invisible Bombers’. The report claims that Northrop Grumman has received a secret development contract to develop a bomber-class aircraft with a radar signature 1/10th that of a mosquito.
* The Register (May 29/08) – SpaceShipOne firm to build Stealth Bomber 4.0? Also explains some of the evidence for the belief that this program has gone “black” (i.e. super-secret, no longer openly reported or discussed).
* DTI, via Military.com (April 28/08) – New AF Bomber May Also Fly Recon. Or at least, an unmanned version might. Note that there will be limitations: the USA’s B-2 stealth bomber, for instance, tends to confine itself to night missions against defended sites, because it has little ability to protect itself once it has been seen visually. Any unmanned bomber would have a similar issue.
* Defense Technology International, via Military.com (Dec 4/07) – New Bomber to Carry Nukes. A decision that could raise its cost by 50%, due to the required redundancy and EMP hardening. It also guarantees that the bomber will be a maned aircraft, not a UAV or UCAV.
* Government Executive magazine (Aug 15/07) – Air Force’s commitment to new bomber a matter of debate
* USAF, Air Force magazine (August 2007) – Great Expectations. “Air Combat Command recently conducted an analysis of alternatives for such an aircraft, and the Air Force has decided which capabilities it will seek in its next generation long-range strike system. The study evaluated “midterm” requirements, the state of technology, and the need to have a fully operational aircraft on the ramp in 2018. The results were, in some cases, quite surprising…”
* Government Executive magazine (June 13/07) – Air Force envisions stealthy long-range bomber for 2018. “The service, which hopes to fly the bomber by 2018, likely will use the F-22’s stealth and maneuverability capabilities when developing the new aircraft, Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., said during a breakfast with reporters… The service also plans to make the bomber a subsonic propulsion aircraft, said Elder…” The article adds that the USAF may be mandated by Congress to have 76 B-52s, but it’s only manning 56.
* Aviation Week (May 2/07) – Next Decade”s AF Bomber To Be Subsonic, Manned [sic]
* Air Force Association (February 2007) – Return of the Bomber: The Future of Long-Range Strike [PDF format, 642k]. In-depth report and analysis by Dr. Rebecca Grant of ISIS.
* USAF, Air Force magazine (October 2006) – The 2018 Bomber and Its Friends
* Inside Defense via Military.com (Sept 30/06) – New Bomber Program to Begin ‘Black’. Which means a classified program. “The ACC chief said programmatic details such as anticipated costs and initial capability milestones will be disclosed to the public. However, issues pertaining to the platform’s projected range, speed and payload will remain closely held secrets known only by a select number of service and Pentagon officials intimately involved with or charged with overseeing its development.”
* Inside Defense via Military.com (Sept 2/06) – Air Force has ‘Hard Time’ Developing Bomber
* Inside Defense via Military.com (Aug 25/06) – Big Down Payment for Future Bombers
* USAF (July 26/06) – Gen. Moseley: New long-range bomber on horizon for 2018
* USAF, Air Force magazine (June 2006) – No Easy Answers on New Bomber
* Air & Space Power Journal (Summer 2005) – “Narrowing the global-strike gap with an airborne aircraft carrier”