The B-21 was designed to be over budget

As William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top acquisitions official, explained on February 8, the strategic approach to B-21 Raider production was deliberately designed for low production rates to improve resistance to budget adjustments. During a virtual debate hosted by RAND, LaPlante suggested that the B-21, unlike previous military aircraft programs, would probably never go into high-volume production. The decision was influenced by a desire to protect the program from Washington’s unpredictable financial climate.

LaPlante, who was instrumental in the development of the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) project—a project that eventually resulted in the B-21—during his tenure as Air Force acquisition chief, noted that the strategic planning B-21 was the F- 35 was a direct response to the challenges faced by the fighter program. The F-35 was a big hit, but the B-21’s strategic planning was not based on strategic planning. The F-35 faced major setbacks, including non-compliance with non-McCurdy standards and development costs due to the program’s inability to meet planned production rates.

Based on the troubled experience of the F-35, the B-21 was conceived with lessons learned in mind. The F-35 program, described by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall as a case of “acquisition malpractice”, demonstrated the difficulties of mass production without meeting required production milestones, leading to unexpected cost increases and delays in the learning curve. . .

LaPlante highlighted the detrimental impact of the Budget Control Act’s sequestration measures on military procurement, noting that these financial restrictions slowed the F-35 production ramp. These reductions risked entering a “death spiral”, in which declining production volumes could drive unit costs to unsustainable levels, a scenario that the Pentagon intended to avoid with the B-21 by maintaining a deliberate production strategy at low speeds.

The B-21 Raider Development and Production Plan underscores a strategic shift in military procurement, prioritizing program stability and financial prudence over the traditional emphasis on increasing production to lower unit costs. This approach presents a nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent in the development of modern military aircraft and the unpredictable nature of defense budgets.

Strategic approach to B-21 Raider production

B-21 Raider

Using knowledge gained from previous military aircraft programs, the Pentagon has taken a careful and steady approach to production of the B-21 Raider. William LaPlante explained that the program’s strategy eschews traditional production increases in favor of more gradual and steady increases. This method sends a clear signal to budget authorities: the B-21 is designed with built-in safeguards against budget fluctuations and cuts, with the goal of being sustainable in the face of financial uncertainty.

In stark contrast to the ambitious production plans of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, which was initially going to produce 132 units but was limited to 21 due to budget constraints, production of the B-21 is severely restricted. Five initial production batches of the B-21 would result in a total of only 21 aircraft, a sensible number that reflected a strategic shift to reduce financial risk and potential unit cost inflation, a lesson painfully learned from the history of the B-2. , whose unit cost rose to about $2 billion after production declined.

LaPlante’s comments, while not a criticism of budget analysts charged with implementing cuts during the sequestration period, underscored the challenge of navigating unpredictable “Washington turbulence.” Such instability often leads to delays and program restructuring, which invariably increase costs. His ideas suggest a concerted effort to design military programs that are not only strategically important, but also capable of weathering the storm of political and financial pressure.

Despite the veil of secrecy surrounding the B-21, LaPlante’s observations point to a production strategy that prioritizes slow and steady production throughout the life of the program, even beyond the initial training batches. This approach is essential, as the B-21 will replace the aging B-1 and B-2 fleets around 2032. The urgency of replacement is further complicated by the logistical and financial inability to maintain four different types of bombers simultaneously.

However, the planned production pace—an average of eight B-21s annually to meet the strategic replacement schedule—may not be commensurate with the Air Force’s operational needs or its future financial environment. Air Force officials, however, in private conversations, expressed a desire to accelerate B-21 production to meet emerging operational demands and face potential budget competition from other high-priority projects such as the next-generation Domain Fighter. Air and allied combat. The aircraft, which is expected to enter full-scale production in the early 2030s.

An initial B-21 inventory objective by the Air Force was set at between 80 and 100 units, later adjusted to a minimum of 100 aircraft. However, assessments by various think tanks and former Global Strike Command leaders suggest that operational requirements may require a fleet of 150 to 225 B-21 bombers. This increased fleet size is considered essential to maintain the operational momentum required to counter similar adversaries, particularly China, highlighting the complex interplay between strategic production planning, financial realities and the evolving dynamics of global security.

Slow production launch of the B-21 Raider

William LaPlante authorized the start of low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the B-21 Raider in late fall, following the first flight of the test aircraft in November. This critical moment hinged on the successful completion of this flight and other undisclosed production criteria, prerequisites for securing the LRIP contract, the details of which remain confidential.

In a statement to Air and Space Forces magazine in January, LaPlante reflected on the decision, emphasizing the program’s focus on production readiness from its inception. The purpose of this approach was to ensure that the B-21 could be produced and deployed in significant quantities to serve as a credible deterrent to adversaries. LaPlante emphasized the importance of delivering these capabilities to warfighters in sufficient numbers to make a strategic impact, underscoring the belief that without significant production and fielding, the B-21’s technological progress would not fully translate into operational superiority.

The definition of “scale” production of the B-21 remains unclear, with speculation as to whether annual production of eight aircraft or slightly more would meet this criterion. The Air Force has not yet announced a planned maximum production rate for the B-21. However, officials have indicated that any increase in production volume will require new investment in both manufacturing infrastructure and labor. Northrop Grumman has identified manpower availability as a critical obstacle to advancing the B-21 from its public unveiling in late 2022 to its first flight, a process expected to take about a year.

This strategic approach to B-21 Raider production underscores the critical balance between technological innovation, manufacturing capabilities, and strategic military planning. By integrating production considerations into the program design phase, the Pentagon aims not only to minimize potential delays and cost overruns, but also to ensure that, once operational, the B-21 Raider can be produced at a pace consistent with the production strategy. Defense and the Global Posture of the United States. This production philosophy reflects a broader shift toward the integration of logistical and operational planning in the development of next-generation military assets, ensuring that technological advances translate into tangible strategic advantages on the world stage.

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