Air Force Asking For Funds To Modernize B-21 Before It Has Even Flown
Budget documents show the U.S. Air Force is requesting hundreds of millions of dollars for the B-21 Raider’s modernization.
The U.S. Air Force is already requesting funding for the future modernization of its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, which is expected to enter service in the mid-2020s. The B-21 has yet to take its first flight, which will now come later than expected.
The request for $241.12 million in funding to modernize the B-21 was included in an Air Force research and development budget justification book for Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24), which begins on Oct. 1, 2023, and ends on Sept. 30, 2024.
The project is identified in the document simply as ‘Long Range Strike Bomber (B-21) Modernization.’ The line item seems to be a new addition to the bomber’s program budget in FY24, as there is no prior year funding listed in that manner. It’s also separate from the other B-21 line items for ongoing development as well as procurement funding.
As for the modernization activities that would be supported by the requested funding, the document specifically notes that these will include but will not be limited to the integration of the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) missile. Just like the B-21, the LRSO is also still under development and will not enter service until 2030, making it a future capability for the B-21 if it actually enters service on time.
While official details about LRSO are scant, the weapon is projected to ultimately replace the aging nuclear-armed AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile that has been in service since the 1980s. LRSO will instead be designed with very stealthy, low-observable features, as well as other advanced attributes, to increase the missile’s survivability against the integrated air defense systems of near-peer adversaries like Russia and China.
Raytheon was selected by the Air Force over Lockheed Martin to continue its work on the future nuclear-armed LRSO cruise missile in the spring of 2020, which readers of The War Zone can learn about here. The service has requested $911 million to continue the development of the LRSO in FY24.
Few additional details are included in the document about what exactly these modernization efforts are intended to consist of beyond LRSO integration. It is only stated that “FY 2024 includes funding for the continuation of modernization studies/technical risk reduction activities,” and that “modernization infrastructure support, development of enhanced technologies, incorporating modifications as required, and nuclear certification” would all be activities that the Air Force’s request could fund.
It’s worth noting that the Air Force’s call for funding to modernize the B-21 before it has even flown doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the state of the program. The B-21 was designed from the outset to be very receptive to future upgrades, with the budget document even highlighting that the bomber’s “open system architecture will enable rapid integration of future capabilities, keeping the platform relevant and effective as the threat environment evolves.”
These upgrades will be supported by the B-21’s 'baked-in' adaptability even though the bomber’s final configuration was frozen early in November 2018 following the completion of its Critical Design Review. This essentially means that although its core design hasn’t changed since that year, the bomber still possesses the ability to evolve as the global pacing threats do, adopting certain new capabilities as needed. The stealth bomber's requirements, which also would impact the need for future modernization, are thought to have been frozen well before 2018, in the earlier part of the decade.
In fact, the Long-Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program which gave birth to the B-21 was focused on pairing highly innovative capabilities with mature or maturing lower-risk technologies. This was done to bring down costs and reduce program risk. Part of this effort was minimizing design changes throughout its design cycle.
Threats change, the Air Force’s future air combat ecosystem is in flux, and new technologies emerge that can be exploited to the B-21’s advantage. As such, upgrading the aircraft even this early and inserting those changes into future production models makes some sense, especially if to a limited degree where most necessary or where the return on investment seems most logical.
A minimum of 100 B-21s are required by the Air Force as part of what it has identified as the ‘long-term bomber force,’ but there have been consistent calls by Air Force officials and analysts alike for the Air Force to substantially increase the order to at least around 145 examples. Some are even calling for upwards of 200 B-21s, claiming that a fleet of this size could be critical in a war against China. Speeding up procurement of the bombers on a per-year basis is also a concern of some, with there being suggestions that going from eight to over double that number will help realize B-21 combat mass faster.
You can read our full overall analysis of the B-21 here and a more recent update based on new photos here.
Regardless, if everything goes as planned, the new B-21s will be delivered to operational installations including Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri beginning in the mid-2020s. At present, the Air Force has said that there are six B-21s in different stages of assembly at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale.
However, Defense News reported last week that the Air Force did just recently admit that the bomber’s first flight will now be taking place later than expected, but also made it clear that it will still occur later this year. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall at the McAleese & Associates conference in Washington explained, “It’s slipped from the original schedule — that we were using as a schedule to manage by — by a few months. It’s still within the baseline [schedule] that we originally had for the program.”
Defense News also noted that in a separate press conference held after the event, Kendall made it clear that the delay was not due to any serious issues with the program. He didn’t say exactly what the cause was, but he mentioned that the internal schedule the Air Force had set had played into the hindrance.
The B-21 is so far said to be overall on budget and on schedule, which bucks the disastrous trend set by its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit. This is a remarkable achievement for the program, but sunny skies can turn cloudy very quickly in this respect. The B-21 still has so much to prove in trials, not to mention flying for the first time. The timeline to field it as an operational capability is very tight and there are bound to be some challenges.
But, with modernization potentially soon underway to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s clear the flying force remains confident in its prized future bomber.
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