Raider Without a Cause: Why is America Buying the B-21?
By Tom Ordeman, Jr.
In 2014, the U.S. Air Force began development of the B-21 Raider, its next generation stealth bomber. However, despite having socialized a set of requirements, identified a vendor, and set a per-unit price that will inevitably skyrocket, any serious discussion of whether a need for this platform actually exists has taken place - pun intended - largely under the radar.
In fact, for many of the same reasons that have led some scholars to argue the controversial position that the Air Force should be amalgamated back into the other services, serious doubts underscore the alleged requirement for a new fleet of heavy bombers. Instead, the United States can - and should - assume minimal risk by letting this platform hibernate with the projected retirement of B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit, and long-term sustainment of the B-52 Stratofortress fleet; and channel the projected $113 billion price tag into versatile solutions that are more appropriate to modern conditions.
A Brief History of Heavy Bombing
Heavy bombing developed during the interwar period. Improvements in aircraft capabilities, paired with conjectural doctrine from the likes of Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, led designers to load ever larger payloads aboard ever more capable aircraft. The "massive bombardment" concept suggested that, in addition to demolishing military targets, heavy bombing of an enemy's industrial base would cripple their capacity to wage war while simultaneously eroding public support for the enemy's war effort. However, sustained and costly bombing campaigns failed to produce such results in Germany or Imperial Japan.
The events of August 1945 seemed to vindicate massive bombardment proponents, as coincidental timing fed a perception that two atomic bomb attacks in relatively quick succession compelled a Japanese surrender. In reality, devastating though the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, Japan's decision to surrender likely revolved more so around the August 9th decision by the Soviet Union - formerly a neutral party in the Pacific Theater, and the party whom Tokyo hoped would arbitrate the final settlement - to declare war on Japan. Nonetheless, air power advocates proliferated the claims - at worst, half-truths - that two atomic bombs had saved at least one million American and Japanese lives by eliminating the need for an invasion; and also, that the atomic bomb constituted the missing link that made massive bombardment viable.
By 1947, air power advocates managed to parlay this narrative into the establishment of an independent United States Air Force. Advocates continued to advance embellished claims that a single aircraft carrying a single atomic weapon could win a war on its own. In an entirely sincere move that assumes a twinge of lunacy with the benefit of historical perspective, some zealots went so far as to recommend the dissolution of the other military services on the grounds that USAF assets fielding atomic weapons could accomplish the other services’ strategic objectives.
The strategic winds began to shift as the scarcity of American fissile material ended, as did the American monopoly on atomic weapons. Massive conventional bombardment failed to deliver quick or compelling results in Korea. Douglas MacArthur's inclination to use atomic weapons against North Korea and China led to his controversial, albeit justified, dismissal by President Truman. A decade of massive conventional bombardment similarly failed to produce satisfactory results in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, developments in missile technology made massive bombardment by way of heavy bombers largely obsolete, or at least primitive by comparison. For a variety of reasons, America retained the capability to deliver nuclear weapons via aircraft. Albert Wohlstetter's seminal 1958 treatise, The Delicate Balance of Terror, described the sheer volume of infrastructure - bombers, refueling aircraft, fortified bases, et cetera - required to ensure the bomber fleet's capacity to reliably hold the Soviet Union at risk, ensuring deterrence. The Air Force continued to develop the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a single unit of which could accomplish the same mission with greater accuracy, a smaller operational footprint, and no human crew, all while stationed on American soil.
Already in 1954, the U.S. Navy had deployed Regulus I cruise missiles aboard two submarines, USS Grayback and USS Growler, before deploying the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) aboard George Washington class submarines beginning in 1957. While nuclear strategists continue to affirm the value of each leg of the nuclear triad (bombers, SLBMs, and ICBMs) when working in concert, bombers remain the most primitive leg. Elsewhere, the French government eliminated land-based ballistic missiles in 1996, now relying upon a deterrent duad, while the United Kingdom discontinued air-based nuclear deterrence in 1998 to rely solely upon its SLBM force. Both countries now rely primarily upon a submarine-based Continual At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) posture, which strategists generally agree to be the most stable form of modern deterrence.
Technological progress also overtook massive bombardment. During the 1950s, increasing yields compensated for shortfalls in precision targeting. By the late 1970s, and more so by the early 1990s, improvements in precision targeting - particularly the introduction of the Global Positioning System - allowed for the reduction of yields to the scale of conventional weapons. For example, in Afghanistan and Iraq, American forces utilized the BLU-82B “Daisy Cutter” and GBU-43/B “MOAB” in cases where combatant commanders might have previously considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons. By 2002, the Bush Administration's Nuclear Posture Review acknowledged America's adjuncts to nuclear weapons by redefining the American strategic triad: the nuclear triad consisted of a single unified leg, joined by conventional capabilities as the second leg, and robust national survivability as the third.
As a persistent taboo against the battlefield use of nuclear weapons constituted an increasingly ironclad precedent, the Air Force eventually shifted its nuclear posture to one of maintenance while the service’s overall focus shifted to other priorities: air supremacy, space operations, and an eventual attempt to govern military information systems. By 2014, the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise found itself in a state of such disarray that a series of scandals led the service’s senior leadership team to intervene. Lip service aside, the Air Force had sent a clear message to its nuclear crews: Air Force leaders no longer considered nuclear deterrence to be the service’s most important mission. The role that had justified the Air Force’s establishment as an independent service was now something of an afterthought.
Modern Capabilities Meeting Modern Needs
The Air Force wants to procure the B-21 Raider to serve two ostensible purposes: the delivery of nuclear and conventional ordnance. The Air Force's recent schizophrenia over the mission that secured its independence notwithstanding, let us start with the nuclear question.
American forces - primarily the Air Force - currently field three air-launched nuclear weapons: the B61 and B83 gravity bombs, which can be launched from virtually any aircraft with wings (and at least one rotary wing platform); and the AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile, fielding the W80 warhead, which currently launches exclusively from the B-52H Stratofortress. The B-52H is expected to serve into the 2050s, so the failure to procure the B-21 would lead to no foreseeable disruption to existing USAF nuclear bombing capabilities.
This leaves the conventional mission, for which the United States maintains and procures a much more diverse range of platforms. Whether in nuclear or conventional operations, massive bombardment has long since fallen into disrepute. Remember, for example, the 2015 debates in which Senator Ted Cruz advocated for "saturation bombing" against the Islamic State, while Candidate Donald Trump advocated for something less printable, and anyone with even a passing understanding of modern warfare asked themselves what decade these candidates were living in. Didn't they realize that America relies upon precision strikes?
So, what purpose would the B-21 Raider actually serve? The projected aircraft replicates both nuclear and conventional capabilities that are better served by lighter, more cost-effective fighter-bomber aircraft. One key indicator is the difference between the F-15E Strike Eagle and the B-1B Lancer in Afghanistan: whereas the Air Force managed to repurpose the Lancer to perform precision air strikes, the Strike Eagle carried a more versatile range of ordnance, including a 20mm cannon, and provided these capabilities at a lower hourly cost than the Lancer. This is to say nothing of the low cost, with comparable loiter capabilities, of both manned turboprop aircraft and remotely-operated platforms.
The Invisible Elephant in the Room
As one Naval Aviator noted, speaking on the condition of anonymity, "The capabilities of the B-21 are a long way from a necessity, but the ease with which a stealthy bomber can penetrate a contested target is a capability that's really nice for a combatant commander to have." This is a fair observation, but merits a sober appraisal of stealth, rather than an a priori assumption of its long-term dominance.
In 1999, an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter was downed in Serbia by a Russian-built Isayev S-125 "Neva" surface-to-air missile, which was first fielded in 1961. Whereas the F-117A utilizes 1970s technology, the F-22 Raptor reputedly fields much more advanced stealth technology, and entered active service in 2005. However, between 2009 and 2013, several fourth generation aircraft - a U.S. Navy E/A-18 Growler, a French Rafale, and an Emirati Mirage 2000 - scored simulated kills against Raptors during exercises.
While debate regarding the long-term viability of stealth technology continues, it would be irresponsible to say, without reservation, that "stealth is dead." Indeed, boilerplate answers to any challenge regarding the criticality of stealth platforms tend to cite studies about modern air defenses, and predictions that America's fourth generation aircraft will not reliably survive them by 2028. However, the aforementioned record of stealth aircraft against 1960s vintage surface-to-air missiles and 1980s vintage fighter aircraft calls the logic behind these concerns into question.
Nonetheless, given America's current range of stealth options, most of which have only recently entered service, does one more stealth airframe, built for an obsolete mission profile, to the tune of over $100 billion just to procure the platform, make sense? For that price tag, what other options - modern options - might be available? Could a flight of F-22 or F-35 airframes, or the proposed F-15 "Silent Eagle" variant, match the penetrative abilities of the existing B-2 or projected B-21 airframes? Could an unmanned option, dispatched on a one-way itinerary - for example, a retired, remotely-operated F-16 that was restored to flight status - accomplish a terminal strike mission against a deep target? Could proposed flights of integrated fourth and fifth generation fighters, or some combination of crewed and remotely-operated platforms, confuse advanced air defenses such that key initial targets could be eliminated?
These, and other questions, seem to have been dismissed outright without even being entertained to any degree of strategic rigor. Additionally, the logic behind the B-21's procurement assumes two factors that have not been in evidence in recent years: the quality of Russian and Chinese air defense systems, notably the Russian S-400; and the likelihood of a direct confrontation between America and a so-called "near peer" adversary.
In the former instance, not only has Russian equipment proved unreliable in recent decades, but the war in Ukraine has put the unabashed dysfunction of Russian military systems on public display. For example, the Soviet Union engaged in a concerted Soviet industrial espionage effort to steal stealth technology during the late Cold War era. However, recent footage of supposed Russian stealth aircraft revealed visible screws, rivets, and other stealth-compromising features, leading analysts to speculate that Russia actually leverages unreliable and labor-intensive stealth coatings. This is to say nothing of the opportunities afforded by the capture and likely exploitation of Russia’s most capable systems, which may allow Western engineers to apply electronic warfare solutions in lieu of reliance on additional stealth airframes.
Elsewhere, Chinese equipment has yet to be tested in combat. While some Chinese systems pass muster at first glance, real questions persist about Beijing’s capacity to produce capable weapon systems. For example, unsubstantiated assumptions that the Shenyang FC-31 aircraft is a like-for-like copy of the F-35 Lightning II appear to rely upon lists of programs compromised by Chinese industrial espionage, rather than a sober appraisal of what it would take to translate those compromised technologies into operational capabilities. As maritime historian Andrew Lambert noted in a 2021 interview:
"The Chinese fleet is a diversion from their real agendas, which are domestic... They're not spending much money on this. This is a very cheap navy. There's a lot of stuff, but it's not expensive stuff. Second hand rusty Russian aircraft carriers, Chinese copies of rusty Russian aircraft, bit of photoshop… Roughly the same number of destroyers and frigates as the Americans, but not in the same ballpark in terms of capability."
The unspoken implication is that anything short of a direct confrontation - a confrontation that Russia, China, and America are all incentivized to avoid - would involve proxy conflicts and "small wars" in which American air supremacy would likely be a foregone conclusion. Thus, the options provided to combatant commanders by stealth aircraft may remain attractive, but the requirement for those capabilities to be incarnated into a heavy bomber may not warrant the high price tag - particularly if more novel solutions can be made to meet the same need at a fraction of the cost.
Better Options for the Money
As noted above, the projected cost to procure up to one hundred B-21 aircraft is $113 billion, which should be expected - like virtually every modern military procurement initiative - to balloon over time. As the heavy bomber concept has effectively outlived its usefulness, and the capabilities provided by the proposed platform are replicated - at lower cost - in other aircraft, a reasonable strategic justification to spend this significant amount of money on the B-21 Raider has yet to be provided.
Conversely, to replace the existing fleet of eighteen Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with twelve Columbia-class boats is projected to cost approximately $110B. Funds currently allocated to the B-21 could be redirected to the Columbia-class procurement effort, halving the Pentagon's cost to sustain nuclear deterrence via a commitment to CASD. On this note, readers should also consider the strategic utility provided by the four Ohio-class hulls that were converted to carry conventionally cruise missiles and special operations personnel following the withdrawal of their original nuclear arsenals.
Back ashore, the Air Force's long-neglected ICBM fleet is long overdue for a major overhaul. America's current ICBM, the LGM-30 Minuteman, originally entered service in 1962, and the current LGM-30G Minuteman III incarnation was first deployed in 1970, receiving upgrades during the intervening decades. The Minuteman's intended replacement, the LGM-118 Peacekeeper, first deployed in 1985. The SALT II treaty's moratorium on Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), coupled with the Peacekeeper's high operating costs, led the United States to procure only half of the proposed Peacekeeper fleet, and to retire that fleet by 2005. This may have made sense in the 1980s, but four decades later, corrective efforts are now overdue. Funds currently earmarked to procure the B-21 would go a long way toward truly modernizing the Minuteman inventory, or else leveraging technological advances to procure a modern equivalent.
These are only two closely related alternatives to procuring the B-21. Indeed, either the Air Force specifically, or the Pentagon more generally, could find no shortage of projects at which to direct more than $100 billion. The A-10 Thunderbolt II, which Air Force brass have fought for decades to scrap, cannot be fully decommissioned without a suitable replacement, for which $100 billion would go a long way. These funds could facilitate the redevelopment of the Marine Corps' replacement for the aging Amphibious Assault Vehicle, or additional attack submarines for the Navy, or initial replacements for the Army's aging M113 armored personnel carrier. The list of better uses for the funds allocated to the B-21 is long and distinguished.
Abandoning Obsolete Paradigms
Owing to American nostalgia for the Second World War - from the Doolittle Raid, to the flights of Enola Gay and Bockscar - for more than three quarters of a century, bombers have represented American strength in the air. Acknowledging the need to discontinue the procurement of heavy bombers feels counter-intuitive, perhaps even ludicrous, on its face. Of course, despite the failure of charge after charge, the same arguments were made during the First World War with regard to horse cavalry. Decades later, after numerous advances had rendered massive, heavily-armored vessels with massive guns conspicuously obsolete, similar arguments were made about the battleships. The tactical and strategic landscapes change with time, and no platform is sacred, particularly if treating any such platform as a holy bovine prevents limited resources from being applied to more effective options.
Heavy bombers have played a key role in defending American interests since the 1930s. However, current strategic and tactical conditions render them obsolete, and as a result, current plans to procure the B-21 Raider amount to little more than nostalgia, rather than strategic necessity. Instead of spending more than $100 billion to procure this airframe for a mission profile that has vacated the realm of strategic necessity, the time has come to mothball the concept of heavy bombing, and to redirect those funds toward more appropriate priorities.