Why the B-21 Raider Is Probably US Air Force’s Last Manned Stealth Bomber

The enormous cost per unit of Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider may jeopardize the future existence of stealth bomber aircraft as the US Military is looking for more cost-effective alternatives.
B-21 rendering

The Northrop Grumman B-21 is the new stealth bomber in development and might be the last big bomber ever built.

The B-21 is set to enter into service around 2026, replacing the aging Lancer and the B-2 Spirit bombers in the USAF. However, the power and cost-effectiveness of drones are leading experts to believe that they can replace the B-21’s role in the long term.

Stealth bombers like the Northrop Grumman B-21 are insanely expensive

The cost of building stealth bombers is extremely high. The B-21 Raider estimated price per unit is about $550 million (which could easily amount to $600 million per aircraft).

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On the other hand, drones are powerful enough to wreak havoc on enemy assets. Top unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the MQ-9 Reaper could cost over $30 million.

Northrop Grumman B-21, Rise of the Reaper
Rise of the Reaper by John Bainter. Public Domain.

Additionally, there are only a limited number of countries that have the technology and resources to build stealth bombers.

Also, if the new stealth bombers will cost around $600 per unit, they will be harder to sell outside the US. Even NATO countries will probably think twice about owning a fleet of these aircraft that will cost tens of billions of dollars when they can purchase drones and get the job done anyway.

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So, the Northrop Grumman B-21 is setting a new benchmark in the cost of aircraft – and since the Air Force typically has a cost overrun in its production, one can expect an even higher price for the aircraft when it enters service.

The rise of drones is changing aerial warfare

Sukhoi Okhotnik
Sukhoi Okhotnik by Geektrooper2. Licensed under CC by 4.0.

UAVs are operated without putting pilots at risk, and they could work as loyal wingmen. In this role, UAVs would fly alongside manned aircraft, providing extra eyes and ears for the pilot and additional firepower if needed.

This way, the USAF will gain overwhelming firepower without deploying excessively expensive bombers.

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Additionally, wars between global military powers are no longer the norm, and deploying such an expensive and cutting-edge aircraft against relatively small insurgent groups may be excessive.

For this reason, UAVs are expected to gain a more relevant role in the next few years as they get bigger. Eventually, they might replace the role of heavy bombers in modern warfare.

The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program could overlap the role of stealth bombers too

The goal of the NGAD program is to create an aircraft that is superior to any other aircraft with stealth capabilities, hypersonic speeds, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), and the ability to operate drones, among other features.

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Today, a fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35 can even drop nuclear bombs… So, sixth-generation fighters are expected to do even more.

That’s why this future aircraft would not only operate in close connection with the Northrop Grumman B-21. It could potentially serve as a bomber and would save costs by not having to deploy bombers along with multi-role fighters.

F-35A flight
F-35A flight by Donald R. Allen. Public Domain.

As a result, it seems a smarter decision for global air forces to acquire a sixth-generation fighter with aerial bombing capabilities instead of investing in an even higher-priced aircraft.

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The role of heavy stealth bombers is not guaranteed in the 21 century

Beyond an arms race with China, it would make no sense to create such costly aircraft that very few countries could afford. Therefore, the Northrop Grumman B-21 could be the last stealth bomber if costs continue to rise.

There are much more cost-effective options to replace these bombers, and the massive bombing raids such as those seen in WWII are no longer the rule.


Featured image credit: Northrop Grumman B-21 rendering by ALAN RADECKI. Public Domain.

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