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B-21: Modernizing the bomber fleet

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AFNS) -- Following the Air Force secretary’s announcement that the new long-range strike bomber would be called the B-21 Raider, Gen. Robin Rand, the Air Force Global Strike Command commander, said during a session at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference Sept. 19 the name brought the past and present Air Force full circle by linking a success from the past with modernization that is currently taking shape with the new bomber -- and must continue to keep the Air Force ahead of its enemies.

“What I like about it so much is the 21st century B-21 and the name Raider connects us back to our rich heritage, and there’s no richer heritage than what happened on April 18, 1942: 80 brave men in 16 B-25 Mitchells took off from the Hornet and showed the Japanese that we had will, we had fight, and changed, many would say, the course of that war,” Rand said.

Rand stressed the aging bomber fleet was in need of an upgrade to combat future threats. In an ever increasing anti-access/area denial environment, the Air Force’s systems need to be survivable, reliable and efficient.

“We’ve got to modernize,” Rand said. “The B-21 is going to be a big part of modernization for our Air Force, so that we can continue to do the long-range strike mission.”

As America’s adversaries continue to update their systems, the U.S. needs to be ready to face them in order to maintain aerial dominance. Consequently, developing new technologies to meet threats is an increasingly relevant endeavor.

“We set priorities on some systems, and you’ll hear our senior leaders this week say ‘Hey, our three top (modernization) priorities are the F-35 (Lightning II), the KC-46 (Pegasus) and the B-21,’ said Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements and another B-21 panelist. “You know what that priority means is that we’re going to find a way to pay for those and we’re going to make those a priority in our budget … because we need to ensure we’ll be able to penetrate the enemy airspace and hold the targets at risk so the president of the United States has options.”

Capabilities

B-21 capabilities discussed during the panel ranged from whether the bomber would be manned or unmanned, to what kind of munitions it would carry, as well as the number of aircraft being acquisitioned.

While Rand stated the number of aircraft to be purchased hasn’t been officially decided, he does have a number in mind. “I’ve been on record saying we need to start with a minimum of a hundred B-21s and my premise for that is looking at combatant commander requirements we currently have,” Rand said, adding Air Force officials are also projecting what the next 50 years of combat requirements will be when deciding how many of the new bombers are needed.

“You have to have a starting point,” Rand continued. “You have to look at the total existing bomber fleet we have now. We have 158 total bombers, B-52s, B-1s and B-2s and I just, again, for the life of me can’t imagine our United States Air Force and our nation can have one less bomber than it currently has today. So, we start with 100, and as we manage the fleet and we manage retiring some aspects of the fleet and bringing the B-21 in, we need to really dig our heels in on what that ceiling should be.”

The specific competencies the newest bomber will possess are still in discussion, but Randall Walden, the third panelist and the director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, stated that as of now, one decision – whether the B-21 will be manned or unmanned – has been roughly decided.

“Right now it’s manned, with the option to do unmanned in the future,” he elaborated. “But, recall this platform is a part of a much larger family of systems, and in that family it’s going to bring to bear probably some of the best capabilities in the nation. … From an unmanned point of view, it’s got a basic requirement stated. (The) question is, ‘What’s the right timing to bring that level of capability together with this type of platform?’”

Budget

“All three of our bomber fleets are gainfully employed every single day,” Rand said. “I sometimes think people need to realize you get a lot of bang for your buck with the bombers. … Conventionally we’re in every combatant commander’s (operational) plan.”

A priority for Air Force leadership, especially with recent year’s tightening budgets, is finding ways to maintain a strong national defense, while also remaining cost-effective.

“There are certainly things we need to do to reduce costs on these systems and (long range standoff) will continue to be a topic as we work through the budget process with the department,” Holmes said. “We’ll work within the Air Force budget to find ways to fund the nuclear enterprise, which is the foundation of (U.S.) defense.”