Did you know the US Air Force is working on a new stealth bomber? Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t, since the project is so secret that most members of Congress aren’t privy to the details. (Talk about stealthy!) Known as the B-21 Raider, after General Doolittle’s Raiders of World War II fame, it’s designed to carry thermonuclear weapons as well as conventional missiles and bombs. In conceptual drawings, it looks much like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, all wing and no fuselage, a shape that should help it to penetrate and survive the most hostile air-defense systems on Earth for the purposes of a “global strike.” (Think: nuclear Armageddon.)
As the Air Force acquires those future B-21s, the B-2s will be retired along with the older B-1B bomber, although the venerable B-52 (of the Cold War era), much modified, will remain in service for the foreseeable future. At $550 million per plane (before the inevitable cost overruns even kick in), the Air Force plans to buy as many as 200 B-21s. That’s more than $100 billion in procurement costs alone, a boon for Northrop Grumman, the plane’s primary contractor.
If history is any judge, however, a boon for Northrop Grumman is likely to prove a bust for the American taxpayer. As a start, the United States has no real need for a new, stealthy, super-expensive, nuclear-capable, deep-penetrating strategic bomber for use against “peer” rivals China and Russia. But before tackling that issue, a little history is in order.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
A long time ago (1977, to be exact), in a country far, far away, President Jimmy Carter did a brave thing: He canceled a major Pentagon weapons system just before it was due to start production. That was the B-1 bomber, a plane with sophisticated—that is, expensive—avionics designed to allow it to penetrate Soviet airspace in the event of a nuclear war and survive. Carter canceled it for the most sensible of reasons: It wasn’t needed.
The Air Force had already developed air-launched cruise missiles that allowed bombers like the B-52 to strike enemy targets with precision from hundreds of miles away. It was also, like all modern weapons systems, outrageously expensive. Why spend vast sums on a new bomber, Carter reasoned, when the plane added little to the nation’s nuclear deterrent? In addition, that cancellation was meant to send a message to the military-industrial complex—that he would neither be beholden to nor intimidated by defense hawks who touted each and every new weapons system, no matter how expensive or redundant, as “essential.”
I was then a teenager with a yen for American warplanes. I’d even made a model of the B-1, complete with “variable geometry” wings that could be extended forward for low-speed flight and swept backward for high-speed, supersonic flight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see it, almost all white like the prototype that Rockwell International, its primary contractor, actually built. In a symbolic act of protest against Carter’s action, I took my model, taped a couple of firecrackers to it, and dropped it from the top floor of our house, blowing it up in a most satisfying way. So much for the B-1, I thought.