Amid fears that the B-21 stealth bomber project could reflect challenges facing the troubled F-35 program, Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante said Feb. 8 that the production rate of the Raider had been deliberately set low to mitigate vulnerability to budget cuts. .
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LaPlante, speaking at a virtual RAND event, said the bomber may never reach high production rates since it was designed to withstand uncertainties in Washington’s budget picture.
LaPlante, who previously served as an Air Force acquisition executive and oversaw the conception of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), later designated the B-21 and awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2015, underlined the resilience of the B-21 program amid uncertainties in Washington.
This approach, he explained, was influenced by the tumultuous developments experienced by the F-35 fighter program, which encountered significant cost overruns and production challenges, culminating in a Nunn-McCurdy gap.
Drawing on lessons learned from the F-35 program, LaPlante highlighted the issue of maintaining a constant production rate, as deviations from planned production levels could hinder cost reduction and learning opportunities.
The imposition of sequestration under the Budget Control Act further exacerbated these challenges, forcing the military services to implement substantial budget cuts.
LaPlante further said that it is important to avoid the problems experienced with the F-35 program by implementing a different production strategy for the B-21, characterized by deliberately avoiding large production ramps.
However, the official expressed concern that if Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35, failed to produce enough of the aircraft to reduce unit costs, the program could enter a “death spiral.”
Generally, larger production quantities lead to lower unit costs as overhead and development expenses are spread over a larger number of units. In contrast, reducing production quantities results in higher unit costs since overhead costs are spread over fewer units.
Fortunately, this scenario did not materialize, but LaPlante acknowledged that there were fears about its possible occurrence. He conveyed to budget planners that the B-21 program should remain intact to ensure its resilience and stability.
USAF B-21 Raider
The B-21 Raider, positioned as the next-generation stealth bomber for the US Air Force, is scheduled to replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers in approximately 2032.
This decision stems from Global Strike Command’s recognition of financial limitations, stating the inability to sustain four types of bombers simultaneously.
Currently, the combined B-1 and B-2 fleets number 64 aircraft, excluding the B-1 involved in a recent accident. Achieving a full replacement by 2032 would require an average annual production rate of eight B-21s.
However, certain Air Force officials have privately expressed a desire to accelerate B-21 production due to operational requirements and competition for production funding with other projects such as the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter and the Collaborative. Combat Aircraft, both planned to undergo high production rates in the early 2030s.
Initially, the Air Force indicated a planned B-21 inventory of “80 to 100 aircraft,” later revising it to “a minimum of 100 aircraft.”
Some experts, including former leaders of the Global Strike Command and several think tanks, advocate for a larger fleet, estimating that between more than 150 and as many as 225 B-21s are needed to maintain operational readiness against potential adversaries like China.
The United States recently authorized the award of the B-21 low-cost initial production contract following the successful maiden flight of the first test aircraft in November. Specific details of the LRIP contract, including its value and associated production milestones, remain undisclosed.
In contrast, Chinese experts have criticized the rapid pace of B-21 production, attributing it to the United States’ perceived strategy of containing China, which they say may have unintended consequences.
Chinese state media claim that China is not inclined to an arms race with the United States, but is committed to improving national defense capabilities, including the development of advanced anti-stealth radar systems, surface-to-air missiles, air superiority fighters and interceptors. and capabilities to attack hostile airfields.
Zhang Xuefeng, a Chinese military expert, told state media: “In addition to precision strikes and ballistic missiles, China can also hit hostile airfields with its bombers, including those similar to the B-21.”
On numerous occasions, both the Chinese Air Force and the country’s aviation industry have suggested the existence of an ongoing development program for a stealth bomber, supposedly called the H-20.