Australia Buying B-21 Raider Stealth Bombers Is A Fantasy But Other Options Exist

The chances of Australia being allowed or actually wanting to buy B-21s is next to none, but it doesn’t need them to chuck missiles far from home.

Andrew Xu/USAF

There has been some buzz about an Australian think tank's idea of having the Royal Australian Air Force purchase B-21 Raider stealth bombers to provide a longer, heavier, and more survivable air combat punch. The idea is that B-21s could help check Chinese military expansion, provide deterrence, and be used to project considerable firepower far from Australian territory during a time of war. Sounds great, aside from it being highly unrealistic. 

There's a report that has helped perpetuate this fantasy by drastically overselling what amounts to a non-confirmation at best from someone with no defense background. I am all into exploring hypotheticals and thinking creatively about defense challenges and procurement mixes, but at a certain point, it gets almost comical. I really don't think I have to go into extreme detail as to why such a notion isn't going to become a reality, but here are the highlights: 

  • Cost: 
    • The B-21 will cost about $700M per copy—that doesn't include all the infrastructure you need to install to support it—and that is if things go as planned, and they often do not, especially with a cutting edge "exquisite" weapon system that has to survive and persist in highly contested airspace and do so after traveling thousands of miles to its target area. Beyond that, the B-21 is a high-flying multi-role platform, it really isn't a bomber in the traditional sense, so it is even more complex in that regard than any of its predecessors. Fiscally speaking, its saving grace is that this is Northrop Grumman's second shot at a stealth bomber and a lot has changed technologically since the B-2's development and subsequent budgetary death spiral nearly 30 years ago. Also, the B-21 is using a number of mature subsystems and technologies and pairing them with a cutting-edge airframe and certain advanced technologies. This lowers risk wherever possible without sacrificing greatly where it matters most. 
    • Still, even if everything works out, how many can Australia afford an effective force? Having a few doesn't make any sense in regards to capability versus return on investment. In addition, the huge acquisition associated with buying a fleet of these aircraft is only the cover charge. It will cost massive amounts of money to keep them available for combat and training. Case in point, currently the B-2 costs $130,000 per hour to operate. Overall, sustaining the program over the decades will cost many multiples of the initial acquisition cost. 
    • The entire 2019-2020 Australian defense budget is $27.52B. Just the USAF's budget for the same period is $165.6B. Obtaining the highest-end combat aircraft in the world on that type of budget isn't just unrealistic, it is malpractice. 
    • Australia has a large number of absolutely critical defense procurement initiatives that would have to compete with the B-21. This includes the absolutely critical revitalization of their submarine force, one that will cost massively more, nearly double over its lifespan, than what was originally projected. 
  • Sensitivity: Considering that the U.S. would not sell Australia the F-22 due to the highly sensitive secrets it contains, how on earth is it going hand over the most exquisite combat aircraft ever realized and one that will be critical to America's strategic deterrent? Just the risk of a third party operating it and potentially losing it or having its secrets compromised is not worth the small increase in production and sustainment scale for the program and enhanced combat power of an ally. Simply put, the aircraft was never designed to be exported and it won't be.
  • Balance of power: Australia acquiring B-21s would represent a huge shift in offensive capability in the region that could have substantial strategic and geopolitical impacts down the line. 
RAAF

A pair of Aussie F-35As in formation.

So no, Australia isn't going to end up flying a squadron or two of B-21s, but that doesn't mean there aren't other solutions that would be more attainable and logical:

  • Buy into the program in an associate manner: By buying into the USAF's B-21 program, it is possible that a situation could be worked out where Australia provides a number of pilots and other support personnel to existing B-21 units. In exchange, a rotational deployment to Australian shores could be set up by the USAF. This could be unpredictable in nature for a prescribed amount of days per year or even something more permanent similar to the bomber rotations to Guam. The  Pentagon and Ministry of Defense have already been working hard to expand other rotational deployments to Australia. The RAAF would benefit from the B-21 program without having to purchase aircraft, standup its own operational units, and support those units and airframes over time. Meanwhile, the USAF would retain end-to-end control of its most valuable asset. The best part about such an arrangement is that it is elastic. If both sides see a benefit in expanding it, that can happen rapidly. If either side doesn't see the value in the arrangement, it can be terminated without the massive costs associated with shuttering an extremely high-end combat aircraft program. 
  • You don't need a B-21 to reach far out and strike your enemy. Other options that are far less expensive exist or may exist in the near future. These include:
    • Pay to integrate JASSM-ER onto the P-8 Poseidon and purchase more P-8s. The P-8 possesses long-range, extreme situational awareness, is mid-air refuelable, and has hardpoints for outsized stores. Based on the information available, at least four JASSM-ERs could be carried. Australia already operates JASSM and has ordered eight P-8s. By increasing this number, Australia gains multi-mission capabilities as well as long-range strike assets. 
    • Purchase large quantities of additional standoff weapons, most notably, JASSM-ER. Australia's tactical aircraft can put them to use and potentially the P-8, if adapted to do so. 
    • Invest in more fighter aircraft and tankers. The solution is not ideal, but paired with standoff munitions, they can range out thousands of miles from Australian territory to deliver attacks on critical targets that will help break down the enemy's anti-access bubble. Israel has long used its fighter force for long-range strikes. The RAAF, with its Super Hornets, Growlers, and F-35As, is very capable of doing the same.
    • Procure very low observable and semi-autonomous/autonomous Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs). They have far greater combat radius than manned fighters and are more survivable. They also solve the combat search and rescue issue that would be a major problem if a manned asset were lost far from friendly territory. They can prosecute targets well over 1,000 miles from their last refueling point and do so again and again.
    • Invest in forward basing. Working with regional allies to push air power far forward of the mainland will eliminate many distance issues in a crisis. Help robustly defend those positions alongside host nations. 
    • Buy more submarines. The most survivable asset that can persist the longest in contested territory and deliver standoff attacks are submarines. Australia's Shortfin Barracudas are highly advanced. Invest in greater force structure beyond the dozen on order and expand their land-attack capabilities. 
    • Equip Mark 41 VLS capable naval ships with the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile or another long-range land-attack missile. Look at placing ground-launched variants at forward bases in allied countries located within range of Chinese interests. Look at cheaply adapting commercial vessels to become arsenal ships loaded with long-range cruise missiles. 
    • The RAAF has eight C-17 Globemaster IIIs. A roll-off the rear ramp variant of a long-range cruise missile could turn these aircraft, in effect, into missile trucks. 
    • Acquire surplus B-1B Lancers from the United States. This will probably be the crowd-pleaser of this post, and it sounds a bit odd, but it actually makes a ton of sense. There is a decent chance that the B-1B fleet could be sunsetted early. In fact, it could get the budgetary axe next year. If the USAF elects to wind down B-1B operations, the RAAF should attempt to acquire the cream of the fleet and the U.S. should offer it to them at the cost of nothing. You don't need a B-21 to chuck standoff missiles far from home. The B-1B is extremely capable of this mission and others. They are not cheap to operate, but if they can be had for the cost of nothing, the operational cost could be seen as a bargain. In addition, if the U.S. retires its fleet, keeping say a dozen to 18 of them in top operational condition should be far easier than it is now. Parts would not be an issue and only the best airframes would be acquired. Paired with the RAAF's tanker support and electronic warfare and intelligence gathering capabilities, the bone would be a near-ideal tool for waging long-range warfare in Australia's neck of the woods. They can also be upgraded to carry future hypersonic weapons and even defend themselves from aerial attack. Another big plus is that its nuclear capability has been eliminated. Concerns with dual-use capabilities, however dubious, won't be a factor. In the end, offloading some of the type to Australia could also help increase bomber presence where it is needed most without having the Pentagon pay for it or risking highly sensitive assets. It is a win-win. 
RAAF

Australian F/A-18F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, a KC-30 MRTT and a B-1B on the boom. A glimpse of a potential future RAAF force structure?

So, there you have it. If the RAAF wants to extend its reach, there are far more realistic options than the purchase of the most expensive aircraft on the planet, one that isn't even available for buying and probably won't ever be. But B-1Bs with Kangaroo roundels, that is something I can get behind. 

What do you think is the best option, let us know in the comments below!

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com