New B-21 Stealth Bomber Taking Shape, PDR Completed

A USAF artist rendering of the B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber.

Nineteen months into the highly classified B-21 stealth bomber program, things are moving as planned with drawings being completed and released and a Preliminary Design Review completed, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Director Randall Walden said at ASC17.

In a panel discussion on acquisition affordability, Walden said the program so far is meeting its goals: to design an aircraft that can “hold any target on the planet at risk”—meaning it can penetrate any air defense system now planned—and deliver “at least” 100 airplanes “on time, on cost, with the best value.”

To quicken its delivery, Walden said, the B-21 is based on “mature technologies” and will “leverage those lessons learned” from the B-2, F-22, and F-35 programs.

“Our biggest activity right now is putting out drawings to build the bomber,” he said, the airplane having passed its first major milestone—Preliminary Design Review. The next task is to “get on with the first builds of the structure.”

Programmatically, he said, the B-21 is “doing quite well,” having “plagiarized” the structure and culture of Lockheed’s “Skunkworks” model: It’s being built by a small team with clear direction, avoidance of requirements changes, and management that “doesn’t get in the way.” That said, he noted the B-21 program still has to follow the 5000-series of acquisition rules. In order to reduce costs, the B-21 is being built for open mission systems, meaning future upgrades don’t have to be supplied by the prime contractor. Toward that end, he said the program is working with MIT’s Lincoln Labs to build standards that will allow any qualified vendor to work on the program.

The B-21 is vulnerable to funding uncertainty like any other program, he said, offering a personal plea to Congress for “funding stability.”

Of the need to speed up acquisition broadly, Walden said “we won’t get it any faster if we do it the same old way,” but he also warned that there are limits to speed. “I can’t make physics go faster,” he said.

The next big program milestone will be Critical Design Review, but Walden declined to say when that is expected.