B-21 Bomber Critical Design Review by End of Year

Air Force illustration of the B-21 Raider long-range strike bomber.

The secret B-21 bomber will progress to a major milestone—critical design review—by the end of this year, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director Randall Walden said Monday. Walden also revealed that the B-21 is merely one of 28 programs being managed by the RCO, which he noted is funded at about $30 billion over the five-year future year defense plan.

Walden, speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Va., said the B-21 has already passed its preliminary design review, and noted that the release of drawings for the bomber is progressing well. As for critical design review, “we haven’t done it, but we’re on our way,” and he predicted it would happen by the end of December. Major design work on the bomber is taking place at Northrop Grumman’s Melbourne, Fla., facility. He acknowledged that subscale models of the aircraft have been tested in wind tunnels, but said no full-size version has yet been fabricated. “Component testing” is moving along at an “appropriate” speed, he said.

“We’re looking forward to … an ‘on-time’ start of production,” Walden said.

Walden has spoken publicly about the RCO in a number of venues, but was more forthcoming than usual about the organization and its products at the Mitchell event. Of the 28 projects in the RCO’s portfolio, 13 are “ACAT 1,” he noted, meaning they are major defense acquisition programs, which usually means a major platform, like an aircraft, missile, or command and control system. While Walden would only identify the B-21 and X-37 orbital vehicle among those that the RCO is working on, he said the majority of the rest could best be characterized as “family of systems” projects.

Interestingly, Walden said the RCO has not been called on to undertake any hypersonics programs. The Air Force is pursuing hypersonics projects with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the other services are conducting independent research in the field.

Walden said the RCO has about 220 people, who are headquartered at JB Anacostia-Bolling, in Washington, D.C. Among them are experts from the line Air Force who are “embedded” with programs to offer operator advice on design and development. Four bomber pilots are attached to the RCO to advise on the B-21’s development, he noted. The B-21 program manager—who Walden did not name—has had experience with management of the F-22 and F-35 programs, he said.

The B-21 program has long been scheduled to produce a “usable asset” in the 2024 timeframe, according to comments offered by Air Force officials for the last three years.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), chair of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces panel, revealed in March that problems had arisen with airflow to the B-21’s engines, and Walden said Monday that these had been resolved.

“Complex weapon systems, especially engine integrations, … you’ve got to get throat sizes done right, prior to anything being built” he said, referring to the serpentine tunnels by which air reaches the B-21’s engines, which are buried in the fuselage. The RCO obtained “insight from actual lab testing” and found the optimal solution, he said.

The RCO has been asked to help with the set-up of a dedicated “Space RCO” at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., and Walden said he has recommended veterans of his own shop to run it, especially those who have worked on space systems, and they have been hired, he said. Walden resisted allowing his own people to be hired away for the new organization, he said.

Walden was asked whether the RCO is working on a successor platform to the X-37, and although he did not reply directly, he did say that it is “no different from any other system, … it starts to get old,” and there begin to emerge problems with vanishing vendors and parts obsolescence. However, he forecast no “big change” in that program in the near future. The X-37 tends to fly two-year missions, and various agencies that use the data collected from it are very happy with its activities, he said.

Walden told Air Force Magazine he is not experiencing trouble obtaining the workforce he requires, but he said he’s aware that major vendors are experiencing difficulties hiring all the engineering and especially software talent needed to execute the Air Force’s array of high-tech projects. He also reported that the RCO’s experience with protests—wherein a contractor not selected for a program complains that the judging was not fair—is no worse, and probably somewhat better, than that experienced by the Air Force in its “white world,” or non-secret programs.

Commenting on the “culture” of the RCO, Walden said it is largely based on the Lockheed “Skunk Works” model of small teams with tightly defined objectives and a vastly shortened reporting chain. Where the RCO saves time and money is usually in the area of “deciding to do” something and not going into endless coordination efforts. The RCO can save two to three years on a project simply by having the authority to make decisions, Walden said, avoiding “the tyranny of consensus.” It reports to an executive committee comprised of the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the service’s acquisition executive, and the Pentagon’s acquisition chief. It’s not possible to rush the development of, say, an aircraft, he said, noting that basic design must be gotten right or problems are inevitable later on. It takes about three years at a minimum to develop a design, he said.

Asked whether the RCO can provide a model to the overall acquisition system, Walden said it can be applied to a degree, but there is the risk that the organization could get too big. “There is a knee in the curve. I can’t tell you” what it is, he said, but at a certain size, an RCO-like acquisition agency would no longer be able to do things rapidly.

The value of something of constrained size, like the RCO, is to “make a decision, get on contract,” Walden said. The mainstream acquisition system takes “an inordinate amount of time” on those two steps. An analysis of alternatives can take up to three years and “sometimes no one makes a decision,” Walden said.

Walden insisted the RCO is fully observant of the 5000-series of acquisition regulations, but makes a careful review of them on all its efforts and works to “avoid” the ones that don’t really affect its programs. He also said the organization turns away many people who want to be involved in overseeing or getting briefed on RCO activities unless they are required under regulations. Even so, he said the RCO has a good relationship with Congress because it tries to be transparent with members, and even when it runs into problems, people on Capitol Hill “want to help.”

He added that the Pentagon’s “risk-averse” acquisition process took many years to get that way and reversing that mindset to one of risk-taking and experimentation will not happen quickly.