USAF Confirms Plans For 100 B-21s While Already Looking To The Future

B-21 Raider
The B-21 Raider is a high-tech nuclear-capable stealth bomber designed with future modernization in mind to ensure the aircraft and technology are able to evolve throughout time and threat changes. (Photo: Travis Burcham via Airman Magazine)

The service expects something better to be available to augment the Raider fleet by the time all 100 bombers are built.

In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 16, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin said might not acquire more than the currently planned 100 B-21 Raider 6th generation stealth bombers as something new with more effective technology might come up by the time the 100 bombers are built and delivered.

“100 is the program of record. I think we’re not going to reach that number until probably the mid-2030s and beyond,” said Gen. Allvin when questioned about the minimum number of B-21s. “Before we commit to that as being the platform and beyond that, I think there are other technological advancements that we would see to be able to augment that and have a better mix”.

This is also in line with a statement from Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore Jr., Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, earlier this year. The General, in fact, did not exclude a change of the number of bombers, adding that the service is thinking about it, but the decision to go past 100 doesn’t need to be made now and wouldn’t happen until the mid to late ’30s.

One of the reasons for the production not being completed before the 2030s is the deliberate low production rate that was set to make the B-21 program more survivable to budget cuts, avoiding situations similar to the F-35 production which could not reach the desired rate and whose price rocketed up. “A lot of the painful lessons of the F-35 were applied to the B-21,” said Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante.

B-21 first flight The B-21 during its first flight (photo by @point_mugu_skies edited by The Aviationist)

During the same hearing, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the B-21 program is moving forward and making good progress, performing close to the original schedule and costs and delivering capability. Last week, during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, the Secretary also said the unit cost of the Raider is decreasing following negotiations with Northrop Grumman.

Both Gen. Allvin and Secretary Kendall did not further elaborate on their statements because of the program’s high level of secrecy and classification. Anyway, both officials confirmed that the B-21 is the future of the Air Force’s bomber force, scheduled to become its backbone and provide critical operational capability for both conventional and nuclear missions and precision effects en masse against targets worldwide.

The U.S. Air Force bomber force is currently undergoing an evolution which will see the fleet going from the current 75 B-52Hs, 20 B-2As and 45 B-1Bs to new composition of 100 B-21As and 75 B-52Js in the 2030s. The BONE (as the B-1s are nicknamed within the pilot community) and the Spirit are in fact scheduled for retirement no later than 2032.

The B-21 at Air Force Plant 42. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

The new technologies that would augment the B-21

The technologies to which Gen. Allvin was referring to are likely technologies that might become available as part of the B-21 family of systems. Details about the family of systems are not available, however both Air Force and Northrop Grumman said it will include Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, electronic attack, communication, multi-domain networking and other capabilities.

“The B-21 family of systems … involves things that could be carried by or possibly accompany the B-21, things that can support it from off-board,” also mentioned Kendall last year. “That includes munitions, it includes other things that could be used for defensive purposes, for example. So, that’s really what that’s all about.”

The B-21 Raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony December 2, 2022 in Palmdale, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Among the off-board that we could think of there are unmanned Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA). While the autonomous drones were initially thought to cooperate in the “loyal wingman” role with the sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance combat aircraft within a “system of systems”, Lt. Gen. Slife, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, said last year the CCA fleet could also assume other roles, including working in cooperation with the B-21.

In 2021, the Air Force announced plans to develop an unmanned counterpart for the B-21 which could match its range, however plans were later abandoned as the drone’s size would be comparable to the bomber’s, making it not cost-effective.

B-21 program status

Shortly after the beginning of flight testing, Northrop Grumman has been awarded the contract for the Low-Rate Initial Production of the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber. The Pentagon did not release the contract’s details, however, when at the bomber’s rollout in 2022, the Air Force stated it expected average unit procurement cost of $692 million.

The number of aircraft covered by the first contract was not disclosed, although some reports after the first flight said it could cover up to 21 aircraft. At the time of the first flight, Northrop Grumman said six airframes were in various stages of production, including the one already flying, which was named “Cerberus”.

Close up view in a photo released after the unveiling (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Mosier)

The B-21 Raider is carrying out test flights out of Edwards Air Force Base, in California, where the aircraft landed at the end of its first flight from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale on Nov.10, 2023. Although the U.S. Air Force has been tight-lipped about the status of the secretive aircraft since then, with no further details or photos of the bomber’s first flight and arrival at Edwards AFB released, it acknowledged that the flight test campaign is proceeding.

A spokesperson confirmed, in fact, that the B-21 flew on Jan. 17, 2024, adding that the Air Force would not provide further details about the test program nor the number of flights the aircraft has flown. A flight test was rumored to have taken place on Mar. 28, while another one possibly took place on Apr. 1. The stealth bomber took to the skies again on Apr. 4, 2024, when it was caught in a video while flying at high altitude, escorted by a chase aircraft.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.