The U.S. Air Force has revealed the designation and shape of its new stealth bomber.
The big, radar-evading warplane—the successor to the Air Force's iconic B-2 stealth bomber—has been designated B-21. And based on the single computer-generated image the flying branch has released, the B-21 looks a lot like ... well, the B-2 from 30 years ago.
"This aircraft represents the future," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said as she showed off the artistic rendering of the B-21 at an Air Force symposium in Orlando on Feb. 26.
The apparent outward similarity between the B-21 and the B-2 is also sure to raise questions. As is its unusual designation, which is out of the normal sequence for new warplanes.
The B-21 program is just five years old, but it’s already encountered plenty of bureaucratic turbulence.
In October, Northrop Grumman beat out a rival consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin to win what was then known as the Long Range Strike Bomber competition. “Building this bomber is a strategic investment for the next 50 years,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the time. “The Long Range Strike Bomber will support America’s defense strategy by forming the backbone of the Air Force’s future strike and deterrent capabilities.”
Carter used the word “investment” for a reason. The B-2 ended up costing American taxpayers more than $2 billion per copy. The plane was so expensive that the Air Force ended up buying just 21 of them. And the B-2 is so complex and unreliable that, on any given day, just nine are actually ready for combat.
The B-21 is supposed to remedy the B-2’s flaws and help the Pentagon deter Russia and China for 50 years or more after the first B-21 deploys some time in the mid-2020s. The Air Force wants 100 of the new bombers at a cost of just $790 million apiece, a bargain by stealth bomber standards. The quantity is key.
Economies of scale can help keep down the cost of a warplane. That’s because developing an aircraft design costs the same whether you buy one copy or 100 copies. According to Defense Department figures, the total cost to design and build one B-21 would be around $24 billion—$23 billion or so for research and development and a little more than half a billion to manufacture the sole airplane.
Build a hundred B-21s and the cost per plane drops to less than $800 million. But that’s assuming the R&D costs don’t shoot through the roof, as they’ve done with, well, pretty much every other warplane the United States has developed in the last three decades. The F-35 stealth fighter that Lockheed is developing for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines has doubled in cost in the past 15 years.
The Air Force insists it can build the B-21 cheaply. And the new bomber’s basic shape might support that assertion. The B-21 shares the same batwing shape that defines the B-2 and which helps the latter avoid detection by scattering radar waves.
Indeed, aside from small changes to the engine inlets and the trailing edge of the wing, the B-21 appears to be more or less identical to the B-2—and on purpose. “The B-21 has been designed from the beginning based on a set of requirements that allows the use of existing and mature technology,” Air Force secretary James said as she unveiled the B-21 concept art.
In other words, it seems the military has essentially hired Northrop to slightly enhance the B-2 and build more copies of it—a lot more, counting on new, efficient manufacturing techniques and economies of scale to keep down the cost.
But there are sure to be plenty of changes inside the B-21 compared to the B-2. Radars and radios and other electronics have made huge advancements since Northrop first designed the B-2 back in the 1980s. There will surely be new technology under the B-21’s skin. And at least one prominent lawmaker is worried this new tech will drive up the cost.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recently that he would not approve funding for the new bomber because Northrop’s contract stipulates that the government, rather than Northrop, is liable for any cost overruns resulting from the plane’s development.
Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, one of the Air Force’s top weapons-buyers, said he and his staff would “analyze what Sen. McCain said” and “go over and work with him and his staff” to ensure the powerful lawmaker is happy and the bomber development goes forward.
Designs and contracts are the biggest points of contention now that the Air Force has given the stealth bomber a name and revealed its basic appearance. But the designation, too, is odd. The military traditionally names its warplanes in sequence. The B-2 bomber followed the earlier B-1 bomber.
Custom dictates that the new bomber bear the moniker "B-3," but in naming the new plane the Air Force caved to marketing trends, instead. "The designation B-21 recognizes the [Long Range Strike Bomber] as the first bomber of the 21st century," the flying branch stated in a release.
Previous “cool-sounding” naming schemes for new weaponry—the Navy’s “DDG-1000” stealth destroyer comes to mind—have met with scorn from the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who actually operate the equipment.
Tempting fate, James went on to Facebook to ask airmen to give the B-21 a nickname to accompany its alphanumeric designation. Most of the initial responses were sarcastic if not downright mocking. Someone suggested “Bat’leth,” the curved Klingon blade of Star Trek lore. “Deez Nuts” was another suggestion. “How about the B-21 Overrun?” one commenter quipped.