If all goes to plan, the first B-21 bomber may fly before the year’s out. If we’re lucky, the Air Force might have a whole 24 to 30 operational B-21s on a ramp somewhere by 2030.
This forecast was aired at last week’s annual Air Force Association (AFA) convention where a panel including Northrop-Grumman president, Tom Jones, William D. Bailey, the head of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Brigadier Gen. Ty Neuman, director of concepts and strategy in the Air Force Futures office, and Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies director of future concepts, Mark Gunzinger, discussed progress with the aircraft.
Whatever progress has been made thus far, a relative handful of advanced B-21s just isn’t likely to complicate the offensive or defense operations of China or any other major U.S. adversary Gunzinger said during the panel discussion on the B-21.
As B-21s are delivered, the Air Force will be retiring a number of its current B-1s and B-2s. Today’s nominal bomber inventory of 141 B-52s, B-1s and B-2s is smaller than at almost any time in USAF history Gunzinger noted, adding that the Pentagon’s current plan yields a bomber fleet of just 133 by 2033.
Gunzinger observed that according to DOD’s own unclassified report to Congress on aircraft inventory, “it looks like the B-21 acquisition rate is going to top out at around 10 per year sometime in the 2030s.”
A guild-like B-21 production pace expected to top out at 10 per year (a decade in the future) would probably be recognizable to the lusty hero of Henry Fielding’s 18th century comic novel, Tom Jones.
But in the present-day strategic environment where the necessity of tactical mass to counter America’s competitors is widely accepted, it seems self-evidently inadequate. Did this jarring reality make anyone on the Panel including Northrop’s own Tom Jones uncomfortable?
“It makes me uncomfortable,” Gunzinger told me. He stresses that Northrop-Grumman’s president can’t dictate the production rate which is driven by the Air Force. Meanwhile, the Generals on the panel did not challenge or dismiss Mr. Gunzinger’s analysis.
Did they or anyone in the audience even squirm at the placid acknowledgement that operational B-21s will be rarer than NFL teams (which number 32) in 2030?
“I certainly hope so,” Gunzinger answers. “I certainly hope Congress is squirming in their seats. Our bomber and fighter forces will reach new lows this decade before they increase in size. At the same time, the threat of aggression against Taiwan or in the South China Sea is peaking. It makes no sense from a deterrence, risk-management or warfighting perspective.”
The obvious hole in American capacity stems from underfunding Gunzinger asserts. “It’s all budget-driven. It’s not based on the capacity of the [Northrop Grumman] production plants in my opinion.”
He points out that these are the same plants which produced the Air Force’s current B-2 stealth bomber, initially envisioned as being produced at a much higher rate. In fact, the last four U.S. bomber programs were planned to produce more than 20 aircraft per year.
For the B-47, the B-52, and the B-1, the rate of production met that goal. The B-2 did not. It was pretty expensive, a whopping $2.1 billion for each of the 21 examples produced. The B-21 should be a little better, still priced $729.25 million each in 2022 dollars.
Previous bombers were undeniably cheaper but they were also acquired during a period when the Air Force had the temerity to ask for (and congress and several presidents saw the strategic necessity in) production of such important aircraft in quantity at a higher rate.
Despite the current dismal state of the U.S. Air Force and the long strategic odds for survival it now faces in any serious fight (or merely for attaining continued credibility), the current administration, senior Air Force leadership and congress appear unconcerned about the lack of strategic aircraft and people available to respond to emergencies or project influence.
The Biden administration’s sleepy view of the world is well known but the laissez-faire posture of the Air Force’s own leadership is equally if not more concerning.
Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, has been a major proponent of the Service’s “divest to invest” strategy which requires divesting of existing aircraft and combat power assets to pay for modernization with new generations of future advanced systems.
Kendall touted a record investment in research and development by the Department of the Air Force in 2022, noting “that we really have to focus on our future and take a little bit of risk in the process to do that,” in an appearance at the National Defense University.
At last week’s AFA convention, Mr. Kendall observed that the United States may not be prepared for any possible conflict with the People’s Republic of China. Yet nothing appears to have materially changed where USAF acquisitions are concerned.
General C.Q. Brown, chief of staff of the Air Force and the Biden administration’s nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has framed the USAF’s future similarly, averring that it must “Accelerate Change or Lose”.
Yet neither official has forcefully, publicly emphasized to Congress that the Service needs more funding just to maintain reduced capacity let alone gear up to deter China.
“The only thing I’ve seen in [congressional] testimony,” Gunzinger says, “is Air Force leadership saying the resources they have are adequate.”
A projected maximum rate of B-21s at ten per year still a decade in the future would seem a powerfully illustrative example to offer congressman and senators of the Air Force’s need for real support. But it is not publicly being advanced by Air Force leaders.
“Congress should ask why and they should ask for the personal opinions of these leaders – not the DoD position,” Gunzinger opines.
Another question Congress may wish to ask is whether the Air Force will have the people to train on, operate and support its small collection of new bombers. “The way I put it during the Panel,” Gunzinger says, “was that the Air Force doesn’t have the crew force, the maintainers, the back-shops to keep the bombers it has today and to integrate B-21s. It’s going to rob Peter to pay Paul… The Air Force is bleeding.”
Technology advocates are likely to raise the prospect of unmanned aircraft – so called Collaborative Combat Aircraft or CCAs – backfilling the deficit of manned USAF bombers. But Gunzinger stresses that CCAs won’t likely be flying into the fight on their wings.
While they may widely range around penetrating manned assets, it’s likely they could raise the possibility of detection and interception if operating nearby. Affordable CCAs will find roles in electromagnetic warfare, as decoys, ISR, cyber and tactical strike, “but the Air Force isn’t going to build CCAs to carry large payloads of bombs. We’re already building the B-21,” Gunzinger says.
That leaves America with an arguably token bomber force which the Air Force has no significant plans to bolster until the mid to late 2030s, if then.
“It’s a strategic choice for our nation and frankly, I don’t see it changing right now,” the Mitchell Institute’s director of future concepts concludes. The Air Force has divested its capacity for three decades. There is almost nothing left to cut.
But America will have a couple dozen B-21s by 2030 – enough to make the powers-that-be across the water from Taiwan shrug and say, “Big deal”.