Almost nothing is known about the new bomber in development, the B-21 Raider, the most important Air Force project of the new century. But it will differ from previous bombers in one critical feature: rapid upgradability, according to Air Force Gen. Tim Ray, who leads the service’s Global Strike Command. In essence, there will be no single bomber but an ever-evolving platform that will change as technology and circumstances change as well.
So the B-21 will be modifiable in four key areas: sensors, communications, electromagnetic signature, and defensive capability, Ray said during the recent Air Force Association conference, just outside of Washington, D.C.
That means the Air Force and prime contractor on the project, Northrop Grumman, need to build a plane that can exhibit a wide variety of attributes depending on the mission and even the current state of technology. That will require changes in the way that the service acquires technology. Said Ray, “all of these things are moving much faster than our acquisition approach.” Another change: the Air Force is planning upfront to spend more to acquire and keep the intellectual property it needs as part of the program, particularly in information technology. “I’m not interested in letting intellectual property sit outside my family,” Ray said.
Air Force leaders see the future bomber as a critical component of nuclear deterrence but deterrence has changed a lot from the height of the Cold War when the government saw the three legs of the nuclear triad—ICBMs, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and bombers—as sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear war.