Ray: B-21 Program Structure Keeps it On-Track and On-Cost

The success of the B-21 program so far is due to its modular approach and incremental changes to its technology, not its requirements, Air Force Global Strike Command head Gen. Timothy M. Ray said June 3.

“We’ve codified the approach … of open mission systems [and] modularity of design, and that allows us to keep very stable requirements” on the B-21, Ray said during an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies streaming discussion. “It’s not necessary to return to [the Joint Requirements Oversight Council] and ask for a new radio, weapon or sensor, or new defensive systems.” These are assumed to be a necessary “part of the bomber,” he explained. Because of that, “you can build it very quickly,” and there have been no requirements changes on the program, he added.

Ray was responding to a question about how the B-21 remains technologically relevant despite the threat having increased during the six years the program has been underway and the years of requirements development before that. The Raider program simply incorporates new technologies as they’re needed, he said. The B-21 is managed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office and is being built by Northrop Grumman at its Palmdale, California, facility, which Ray recently toured.

The B-21 approach, which is also being used on the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile program, is one of the main reasons the B-21 received unusual praise from House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith (D-Washington) recently, Ray said. Smith hailed the B-21 as a well-thought-out and well-run program, saying it’s “on time, on budget, and they’re making it work in a very intelligent way.”

Because of the new bomber’s management approach, “It will take me roughly a tenth of the time to put the JASSM-ER on the B-21 than it did on the B-2,” Ray said. But it is sticking to its baseline requirements, he noted.  

“Do you add it now? No, you field [the bomber] on time, on cost, [with] stable requirements,” he said. The Raider won’t get block upgrades, either, he said, unless it’s something “incredibly significant.”

“We do increments and updates. And those can happen [quickly]; they don’t take big depot mod lines—you can do those on the flight line, right there at the airplane,” Ray said.

Air Force Global Strike Command boss Gen. Timothy M. Ray speaks with retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, during a virtual event June 3. Mitchell Institute YouTube video.

Keeping requirements and funding stable has helped the program. Ray said Acting Secretary John P. Roth asked him why he wasn’t late on the program and he said, because “I refuse to change the requirements,” allowing him to “focus on finishing the things I need to do” and prompting “some of the praise we got from Chairman Smith.”

Re-engining the B-52 and giving it a digital backbone is another necessary part of the bomber portfolio, Ray said. The bomber, which Ray said “is older than me,” is still “an analog airplane.” While some “pieces and parts are digital, … if I want to be effective at electronic attack or rapid modernization, I have to have that digital piece.”

The re-engining will be “on the conservative side,” provide a savings of at least 20 percent in fuel costs, Ray said. However, “it may seem counterintuitive, … but it’s not a 20 percent savings in tankers—it’s actually much higher.” In some scenarios, he said, the re-engining will reduce the B-52’s need for tanker support by “almost half,” expanding the flexibility of the force and freeing tankers for other missions.

Ray said he also wants to provide some relief for the “poor maintenance guys trying to … keep that TF33 in the game.” The TF33 is the B-52’s original engine, which has served nearly 60 years.