America’s next great warplane has a name. Well, it’s more of a designation than a name: The B-21, also known as the “Long Range Strike Bomber,” which is really more of a description than a name.
Whatever you call it, the Air Force released the first rendering of the plane, which looks a lot like the bomber that preceded it, the iconic B-2. If you believe the military, it’s the plane that “will allow the Air Force to operate in tomorrow’s high end threat environment,” by bombing anyone it pleases and land safely back on American soil. That makes you wonder what the B-2 is for.
The Air Force and Northrop have kept quiet about the new bomber’s abilities, though the B-21 almost certainly will build on the B-2’s qualifications: A range of nearly 7,000 miles, a 20-ton payload, a max speed of about 600 mph, and the ability to carry conventional or nuclear weapons.
The B-21 (the designation refers to the plane’s status as the first new bomber of the 21st century) will be built by Northrop Grumman, which beat a joint proposal from Boeing and Lockheed Martin in October. The contract is worth about $80 billion, and the Air Force plans to pay no more than $511 million per plane, according to Reuters. (Boeing and Lockheed protested the decision, were dismissed by the GAO, and announced today they’ll stop complaining about it.)
The B-21 closely resembles the B-2 bomber (also a Northrop Grumman joint), but the Air Force says it definitely absolutely seriously will not follow the same path to service. Development of the B-2 began during the Carter administration; the stealth bomber was designed with the needs of the Cold War in mind. Years into development, the Air Force requested a design change to make the aircraft capable at low as well as high altitudes, prompting a serious redesign. Delays and cost increases piled up, and by the time that futuristic plane had completed R&D and testing, the Air Force had to revise its order from 132 aircraft to just 21—which it bought at $2 billion a pop. “What we must not do is repeat what happened with our last manned bomber,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2009.
This century, the American military has had a bit of trouble producing new planes. The B-2 boondoggle has been followed by the F-35, maybe the most expensive weapon ever developed. The F-35 is supposed to be the Swiss Army knife of planes, available in three models to meet mission requirements for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. In 2010, the Pentagon announced the cost per plane had risen 50 percent since the contract was awarded. The GAO issued a report titled “Additional Costs and Delays Risk Not Meeting Warfighter Requirements on Time.” Last year, it pointed out more recent design changes, “largely in response to a structural failure on a durability test aircraft, an engine failure, and software challenges.” The F-35 is likely to finally enter service in 2017, but by this point, it could be mistaken for Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant: epically crippled but somehow still alive, slowly dragging itself forward.
Meanwhile, the planes that are in the air and still kicking ass resemble the cast of Space Cowboys. The stalwart B-52, which entered service in 1955, is set to get a new radar system and should keep flying for at least 35 more years. The long-threatened retirement of the beloved, indestructible, and thoroughly amazing A-10 Warthog—which the F-35 is supposed to one day replace—has been delayed until 2022.
The B-21 doesn’t exist beyond the computer yet and is not expected to enter service until the middle of the next decade. At the earliest.