Why the Revolutionary B-21 Drone Wingman Was Abruptly Canceled

The idea of having a B-21 drone wingman is no longer popular in the USAF, and the program was scrapped.
B-21 rendering

The Air Force has scrapped the “B-21 drone wingman” concept for its new B-21 bomber, opting only for the manned version of this state-of-the-art bomber.

The decision comes as the Air Force faces increasing cost overruns in an already wildly expensive aircraft that could cost more than $500 million.

What is the B-21 drone concept?

The B-21 Raider is a long-range stealth bomber being developed by Northrop Grumman for the United States Air Force (USAF). The aircraft is intended to be the successor to the B-2 Spirit bomber, with a quite similar design but with a more advanced technology.

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Parking a B-21 drone Spirit Stealth Bomber during RF-21-1
Parking a B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber during RF-21-1 by Sadie Colbert. Public Domain

The B-21 will be designed to penetrate anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) defenses and perform nuclear and conventional missions – and the bomber is being developed under the USAF’s Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program.

The LRS-B program was launched in 2014 to develop a new generation of long-range strike aircraft to replace the aging B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer bombers. 

B-52 Stratofortresses arrive in Europe
B-52 Stratofortresses arrive in Europe by Benjamin Raughton. Public Domain

The B-21 is expected to enter service in the mid-2020s. Now, it is currently in the engineering and manufacturing development phase. So, it is a project that is subject to further development.

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To date, very little information has been released about the bomber’s design or capabilities. However, it is believed that the B-21 will be approximately the same size as the B-2 Spirit and will have a similar flying wing design.

But what is most shocking so far is that the concept that made it so unique, the unmanned bomber version – apart from its standard counterpart, is being discarded by the Air Force because of the unnecessary costs it would entail.

The unmanned “B-21 drone wingman” concept is gone

The decision to scrap the B-21 drone bomber comes as the USAF faces increasing pressure to cut costs and simplify its operations. As a result, the “wingman” concept was seen as too costly and complicated to implement.

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It is unclear what exactly this means for the future of the B-21 stealth bomber. However, it is likely that the Air Force will continue to develop innovative features that meet the challenges seen in 21st Century warfare. 

Likewise, the cost of developing the B-21 is already fairly costly to develop a B-21 drone, which, although less expensive, would raise the cost to the aircraft and its wingman by almost to billion dollars.

In any case, the bomber is still in development and could undergo further changes before it enters service anyway.

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This change will allow the Air Force to save money on training and maintenance costs and focus on developing new drones instead of a B-21 drone that fulfills the same role as its manned counterpart.

A particularly expensive drone

B21 Bomber Air Force Official
B21 Bomber Air Force Official by U.S. Air Force Graphic. Public Domain

The B-21 drone would be a costly aircraft. It is estimated that each plane will cost approximately $550 million, and the unmanned version could cost around $300 million. This makes the B-21 the most expensive military aircraft ever built. 

The high cost is because the B-21 is a very sophisticated plane. It is designed to be stealthy and able to carry a large payload. The B-21 is also intended to be able to fly long distances and penetrate enemy defenses.

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The B-21 advanced capabilities are yet to be revealed

The bomber is still in development and is not expected to be operational until the mid-2020s. Although we already know that the B-21 drone won’t be its wingman, the aircraft is still under development and may still incorporate technologies that haven’t been used in the world of aviation.

This could mean significant changes for the future of bombers. Only time will tell what exactly the Air Force has in store for its new stealth bomber.


Feature image credit:  B-21 rendering by ALAN RADECKI. Public Domain.

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