While the Air Force may lay out an acquisition strategy for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber in the service’s fiscal 2023 budget request, defense policy makers are weighing how to balance a B-21 procurement timeline with sustaining 76 Boeing [BA] B-52s, 45 B-1Bs, and 20 Northrop Grumman B-2s in the years ahead.
“In deciding whether and how quickly to acquire B-21s, Congress may wish to consider the tradeoff between the cost and effectiveness of new aircraft and extending the service lives of existing B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s,” per a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. “This may be a challenging comparison, particularly as the B-52s are already scheduled to remain in service for 80 years, an unprecedented service life for a combat aircraft. Quite apart from the B-52’s suitability to operate in evolving air defense environments, the challenges of maintaining and operating an 80-year-old aircraft in regular service are unknown. That said, many of the B-52’s systems have already been upgraded and replaced over the years, so the time since manufacture may not represent the actual maturity of the aircraft.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said this month that Northrop Grumman has the construction of five B-21 test aircraft underway at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif.–three more than previously disclosed. Kendall said that “the [B-21] program is making good progress to build real capability” and that “this investment in meaningful military capabilities that project power and hold targets at risk anywhere in the world addresses my number one priority.” Kendall recalled his service as Pentagon acquisition chief during the Obama administration and said that the B-21 had originated from a “family of systems” study done by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
As DoD acquisition chief, Kendall had kicked off the B-21 development phase in October 2015.
The five B-21 test planes under construction in Palmdale “likely include at least one aircraft for static test and one for initial flight test,” per the CRS report. “This [five aircraft] disclosure confirms CRS’s previous observations that the B-21 budget profile appeared more like a production program than pure R&D. The B-21’s official first flight, originally anticipated in December 2021, is now expected in mid-2022.”
The Air Force requested nearly $3 billion for B-21 research and development and procurement in fiscal 2022, and controlling costs will be a significant issue for lawmakers. DoD has proposed acquiring the B-21 through a cost-plus-incentive fee development contract, followed by firm-fixed-price procurement–an approach that has generated some controversy.
“The late Senator John McCain publicly challenged this contract structure, arguing that a fixed-price development contract would be more beneficial to the government,” per the CRS study. “‘I will not authorize a program that has a cost-plus contract—and I told them that,’ said McCain (R-Ariz.). ‘If you have a cost-plus contract, tell me one time that there hasn’t been additional costs, then I would reconsider. The mindset in the Pentagon that still somehow these are still acceptable is infuriating.'”
“In evaluating the acquisition strategy, Congress may attempt to assess to what degree the declared subsystem risk reduction has actually reduced the technology risk of the entire B-21 program,” CRS said. “Congress may also consider whether it prefers to fix development costs and take a risk on which capabilities can be achieved for that cost, or fix the technology requirement and take a risk that DoD proposes to acquire the B-21 through a cost-plus-incentive-fee development contract followed by firm-fixed-price procurement.”
In June, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told Congress in prepared testimony that the service plans to neck down to a two-bomber future fleet of 76 upgraded Boeing B-52s and 149 Northrop Grumman B-21 Raiders (Defense Daily, July 14). Nahom said that the next five to seven years are critical for the bomber force, as the service brings on the B-21. A possible force structure availability gap looms in the next decade to 15 years, as the service retires its Boeing B-1B and Northrop Grumman B-2s and upgrades the B-52s.