Air Force Gets B-21 Stealth 'Long Range Strike Bomber': Is It Worth The Mind-Boggling Price?


It could launch from anywhere in the United States and strike any point on the globe, but the concept for the B-21 stealth bomber may remain just that: a concept. The true heft of its heavy price tag is still unknown, resulting in pushback from legislators.

Revealed at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando on Friday, the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber was billed as the answer to tomorrow's unknowns. But it's the unknowns surrounding the B-21 that's making the concept a hard sell.

The 21st Century Bomber

The concept for the bomber depicts an aircraft that looks a lot like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit - the B-21 will receive its name through an Air Force contest. The capabilities of the B-21 are, to put it generously, sparse right now.

The concept has been in development for years.

It's believed to top a speed of 600 mph and will have the range to land airstrikes anywhere after launching from U.S. soil, the continental United States to be more specific.

The B-21 looks a lot like the B-2 because of the concept's design requirements. Those requirements entailed supporting the use of "existing and mature technology," stated Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

With the ongoing downsizing that has been hitting the Air Force, some of the service branch's top chiefs have been making the case for the B-21.

The tech that made the United States great 50 years ago won't make it great "over the next 50," Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force Chief of Staff, asserted before Congress earlier this month.

"There are many other systems we need to either upgrade or recapitalize to ensure viability against current and emerging threats," said Welsh. "The only way to do that is to divest old capability to build the new."

Fixated On Price

Builders of the B-2 Spirit, Northrop Grumman, won the bid for the B-21 project. Part of the reason so little is known about the B-21 is Northrop Grumman didn't want to tip its hand to the other bidders, which included Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

While that may be understandable, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has balked at the pricing of the B-21 project. Northrop Grumman won the contract, valued at $80 billion, to design and build 100 B-21 bombers, but that price isn't fixed.

McCain's biggest concern about the B-21 project is Northrop Grumman's cost-plus contract, which could see that $80 billion climb when profits are accounted for later on.

"They will say it's because they're not sure of some of the things they need in the development stage," said McCain. "Fine, then don't bid on it until you do know. 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."

On the other side of the debate, the Air Force has reasoned that only the development phase of the project has cost-plus incentives built into it. Despite the $80 billion valuation, the Air Force contends that it will only pay $511 million per plane in 2010 dollars.

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