B-21 A Good News Story: HASC Chairman

B-21 Raider artist rendering

WASHINGTON: The secretive B-21 stealth bomber appears to be solidly on schedule, the top lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee said today, calling a recent briefing on the program “one of the most positive, encouraging things that I’ve had happen to me in the last couple of weeks.”

Rep Adam Smith, never known for sugarcoating the facts on any big-ticket acquisition program, said that the Air Force appears to have “learned the lessons” of the vastly over-budget and behind schedule F-35 program, which he’s excoriated in the past. The B-21 “on time, on budget, and they’re making it work in a very intelligent way.” 

The Northrop Grumman-built stealth bomber has been cloaked in some mystery since its inception, but the Air Force has said it expects the first model should fly some time in 2022, and a second is currently being built at the Northrop facility in Palmdale, California.

The bomber is designed to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons — it will be a key part of the nuclear triad in the coming years — and is slated to enter service by 2027. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost of buying the first 100 bombers would eventually come in around $80 billion.

Maintaining them won’t be cheap, either.

The CBO has also estimated that a single B-21, armed with 10 Long-Range Stand-Off cruise missiles and capable of launching eight nuclear warheads, would cost $500 million to procure, plus $40 million a year in 2020 dollars to maintain.

That’s money the Air Force and Pentagon says will be well-spent, as the Air Force will need to begin retiring the aging B-2 and B-1B in the coming years.

Smith cautioned that the program is far from complete and things can go sideways quickly one the plane starts flying, but he was relatively upbeat about what he sees as the Pentagon having taken the hard lessons of the F-35 and other acquisition messes to heart. 

“We’ve had this terrible two decades,” of aircraft, ship, and ground vehicle programs stalling out or eating themselves alive thanks to big promises racing ahead of what’s technologically possible, Smith said  at the American Enterprise Institute this morning. “But lessons are being learned and we’re getting better about how we buy these things, so we’re starting to see the change that I think we need to see.”

After repeated acquisition failures and massive cost overruns, “the culture of the Pentagon needs to be changed. I will just say that I’ve never in my 24 years seen a situation where there seemed like more hope, more urgency, make those changes.”

With the 2022 budget coming in at $715 billion, or essentially flat from 2021, DoD leadership are going to have to make some difficult choices about what programs they devote money to, given the likelihood of more flat budgets in the future.

“I want the Pentagon to feel some measure of physical pain every time they spend a dollar,” HASC chairman Rep. Adam Smith said. “And I want them to make sure that they do it in the most cost effective, intelligent way possible.”

On the B-21 bomber, military leaders have stressed the need for a long-range, nuclear-capable bomber with stealth characteristics for years, given the increasingly sophisticated radar and sensing technologies developed by China and Russia in order to make it harder for American Cold War-era bombers to come close to their shores.

As bullish as he was on the bomber program however, Smith remains frustrated by the uncertainty over when the Biden administration will release its first budget. 

“The budget doesn’t have to be perfect,” Smith said. “We will make changes. If there is something you don’t like, there is time to fix it. There is not time to get through the legislative process if we don’t get this before May 10th.”

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