Pentagon Acquisition Boss: B-21 Was Designed for Budget Survivability Too

The B-21 Raider was structured for a low production rate to make it less vulnerable to budget cuts, Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante said Feb. 8, in comments suggesting the bomber may never be produced at high rates.  

LaPlante, speaking at a virtual RAND event, said the B-21 program “was designed to be resilient to Washington turbulence.” LaPlante was the Air Force acquisition executive who oversaw the plan for the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the contract for which was awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2015. The LRS-B was later named the B-21.

The B-21 program was mapped out in the wake of upheaval in the F-35 fighter program, which suffered a Nunn-McCurdy breach due to rocketing development costs and difficulty producing the fighter at planned rates, LaPlante said.

“A lot of the painful lessons of the F-35 were applied to the B-21,” he said. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who also spoke at the RAND event, has described the F-35 as the product of “acquisition malpractice.”

One of the problems with the F-35, LaPlante said, was that “we had this gigantic production. And if you don’t hit the ramp,” or achieve the necessary rate of production, “the price won’t come down, and the learning won’t happen. So you had to hit that ramp,” When the F-35 didn’t reach the expected maturity on time, annual buy quantities were sharply reduced.

This was happening during the time of the Budget Control Act, which imposed a sequester on the Pentagon, LaPlante noted. The sequester compelled the services to make heavy cuts.

 “What do you think was attacked by the budgeteers? Unfortunately, the [F-35] ramp. So every year the ramp is doing this,” LaPlante said, gesturing down with his hand.

“And of course, our fear was, you reach a point where it would go into a death spiral,” if F-35 maker Lockheed Martin couldn’t produce enough airplanes to get the unit price down. Generally, if production quantities are high, cost per unit comes down, because development and overhead costs are spread over a larger number of units. But if quantities are reduced, overhead costs are spread over fewer units, and unit costs go up.

“That never happened, thankfully, but we were worried,” LaPlante said.

With that experience fresh in mind, the B-21 was structured so “there’s no big ramp. It’s like this,” LaPlante said, gesturing with his flat hand angled only slightly upwards.

The message to budgeteers about the B-21, he said, was “stay away, don’t touch me. Because we want to make it resilient.”

The first five production lots of the B-21 amount to only 21 airplanes. By contrast, the B-2 bomber factory was built to produce 132 aircraft fairly rapidly, but Congress drastically reduced and then terminated the program after only 21 had been built, raising that aircraft’s unit cost to nearly $2 billion each.  

LaPlante said he was not being critical of budget analysts who had to find the congressionally-demanded cuts during the sequester, but noted that “Washington turbulence,” usually translates to delays, restructures and hence higher program costs.

“So you can learn and you can design these programs to try to be survivable, given all the climates that we’re talking about, but you have to really think hard,” LaPlante said.

LaPlante didn’t elaborate further about the secretive B-21, observing that “there’s limits about what we can say publicly about it for very good reason.” But his remarks indicate that the program is structured to produce aircraft at a very low rate, even after initial learning lots.

The B-21 is slated to replace the B-1 and the B-2 by around 2032, as Global Strike Command has said it can’t afford to field four kinds of bombers at once. Combined, the B-1 and B-2 fleets now number 64 aircraft, assuming the B-1 that crashed in early January is not repaired or replaced. To fully replace those aircraft by 2032 would require an average annual production of eight B-21s per year.

However, some Air Force officials have said privately they would like to get the B-21s built faster, both out of operational need and because the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter and Collaborative Combat Aircraft will be in high-rate production in the early 2030s, competing with the B-21 for production money.

The Air Force initially pegged the B-21 planned inventory as “80-100 aircraft,” and in recent years as “a minimum of 100 aircraft.” Various think tanks, as well as former heads of Global Strike Command, have said that the service needs upwards of 150 B-21s, and perhaps as many as 225 of the bombers, to maintain the operational tempo needed in a potential future conflict with a peer adversary like China.

LaPlante approved the award of the B-21 low-rate initial production contract late last fall, after the first test aircraft made its first flight in November. The company had to achieve first flight—as well as other, undisclosed production milestones—in order to receive the LRIP contract, the amount of which was also not revealed.

“This past fall, based on the results of ground and flight tests and the team’s mature plans for manufacturing, I gave the go-ahead to begin producing B-21s at a low rate,” LaPlante said in a January statement to Air & Space Forces Magazine.

He also said that “one of the key attributes of this program has been designing for production from the start—and at scale—to provide a credible deterrent to adversaries. If you don’t produce and field to warfighters at scale, the capability doesn’t really matter.”

It isn’t clear whether eight aircraft per year, or slightly more, constitutes “at scale.” The Air Force has never revealed the expected peak production rate for the B-21, but service officials have noted that increasing the rate would require investing in more tooling and a bigger workforce. Northrop has cited workforce as one of the limiting factors in getting the first B-21 into flight test. It took the company nearly a year after the late 2022 public rollout of the bomber to achieve first flight.