As William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, explained on February 8, the strategic approach to B-21 Raider production is to intentionally engineer low production rates to increase its resistance to budget adjustments. In a virtual discussion hosted by the RAND Corporation, LaPlante said that unlike previous military aircraft programs, the B-21 may never enter high-volume production. The decision was motivated by a desire to protect the program from the unpredictable financial environment in Washington.
LaPlante, who played a key role in the development of the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program (which eventually resulted in the B-21) while serving as Air Force acquisition chief, noted that the B-21 was a precursor to the F-35 A direct response to the challenges facing the fighter program. The F-35 suffered a major setback, but the B-21’s strategic planning was not based on strategic planning. The F-35 has faced major setbacks, including not meeting Nunn-McCurdy standards due to skyrocketing development costs and the program’s inability to meet planned production rates.
The B-21’s design is based on lessons learned from the troubled F-35 experience. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall described the F-35 program as “acquisition misconduct” that demonstrated the pitfalls of mass production without meeting necessary production milestones, leading to unexpected cost escalations and a learning curve Delay.
LaPlante highlighted the adverse impact of the Budget Control Act sequestration measures on military procurement, noting that these financial constraints have led to reduced F-35 production. Such cuts create the risk of entering a “death spiral” in which declining production could push unit costs to unsustainable levels, a scenario the Pentagon intends to avoid with the B-21 by maintaining a low-rate production strategy.
The B-21 Raider development and production plans underscore a strategic shift in military procurement that prioritizes program stability and fiscal prudence rather than the traditional emphasis on increasing production to reduce unit costs. This approach represents a nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent in modern military aircraft development and the unpredictability of defense budgets.
A strategic approach to B-21 Raider production
Using knowledge gained from previous military aircraft programs, the Pentagon has taken a cautious and steady approach to B-21 Raider production. William LaPlante explained that the plan’s strategy eschews traditional volume increases in favor of a more gradual and steady growth approach. This approach sends a clear signal to budget authorities: The B-21 is designed with inherent defenses against budget fluctuations and cuts, with the goal of maintaining durability in the face of fiscal uncertainty.
Production of the B-21 was severely limited in contrast to the ambitious production schedule of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, which originally planned for 132 aircraft but was limited to 21 due to budget constraints. The initial five production batches of the B-21 totaled only 21 aircraft, a cautious number that reflected a shift in strategy to minimize financial risk and possible unit cost inflation, learned from the B-2’s history Lessons learned the hard way After production was reduced, its unit costs soared to nearly $2 billion.
LaPlante’s comments, while not a criticism of the budget analysts tasked with enacting cuts during the sequester, underscore the challenge of dealing with unpredictable “turmoil in Washington.” This instability often leads to delays and program reorganization, which inevitably increases costs. His ideas suggested a concerted effort to design military plans that were not only strategic but capable of withstanding the storms of political and financial pressure.
Although the B-21 is shrouded in mystery, LaPlante’s observations point to a production strategy that prioritizes slow and steady production throughout the program’s life cycle, even beyond the initial learning batches. This approach is critical because the B-21 will replace the aging B-1 and B-2 fleet around 2032. Maintaining four different types of bombers simultaneously is logistically and financially unfeasible, exacerbating the urgency for replacement.
However, the planned production pace—an average of eight B-21s per year to meet the strategic replacement program—may not be appropriate for the Air Force’s operational needs or its future fiscal environment. Air Force officials, though in private conversations, have expressed a desire to speed up B-21 production to meet emerging warfighting needs and stay ahead of potential budget competition from other high-priority programs, such as the Next-Generation Domain Fighter. The aircraft is expected to enter full production in the early 2030s.
The Air Force’s initial B-21 inventory target was set at between 80 and 100 aircraft, but was later adjusted to at least 100 aircraft. However, assessments by various think tanks and former Global Strike Command leaders indicate that operational requirements may require a fleet of 150 to 225 B-21 bombers. The increase in fleet size is considered critical to maintaining the speed of action required to counter similar adversaries, particularly China, highlighting the complex interplay between strategic production planning, fiscal realities and the changing dynamics of global security.
B-21 Raider production gets off to a slow start
William LaPlante authorized the start of low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the B-21 Raider in late fall, following the test aircraft’s first flight in November. This critical moment depends on the successful completion of this flight and other undisclosed production benchmarks, which are a prerequisite for being awarded the LRIP contract, the details of which remain confidential.
In a statement to Air Force & Space Force magazine in January, LaPlante reflected on the decision, emphasizing that the program was focused on preparing for production from the beginning. The purpose of this approach is to ensure that the B-21 can be produced and deployed on a scale large enough to provide a credible deterrent to adversaries. LaPlante stressed the importance of delivering these capabilities to the warfighter in sufficient quantities to have strategic impact, underscoring the belief that without mass production and fielding, the B-21’s technological advances will not fully translate into operational advantage.
The definition of “scale” production of the B-21 remains vague, with speculation as to whether eight or slightly more aircraft per year would meet this criterion. The Air Force has not disclosed the planned maximum production rate for the B-21. However, officials said any increase in production would require new investments in manufacturing infrastructure and workforce. Northrop Grumman has identified manpower supply as a key limiting factor in the B-21’s journey from its public debut in late 2022 to its first flight, a process that took nearly a year.
This strategic approach to B-21 Raider production emphasizes the complex balance between technological innovation, manufacturing capabilities, and strategic military planning. By incorporating production considerations into the program design phase, the Pentagon aims not only to reduce potential delays and cost overruns, but also to ensure that the B-21 Raider, once it enters service, can be produced at a pace consistent with production strategy. America’s global posture. This production philosophy reflects a broader shift in the integration of logistics and operational planning in the development of next-generation military assets, ensuring that technological advancements are translated into tangible strategic advantages on the world stage.
(Label Translation) B-21