Beyond the Cusp

February 29, 2016

Northrop Grumman Long-Range B-21 Bomber Plans Unveiled


We could file this one under the it’s about time file, but perhaps we should wait and see what develops. We have heard of a new aircraft to replace the aging B-52 fleet which has been around almost as long as Donald Trump. John McCain announced Thursday he would block the Air Forces using the often used method of cost plus type of contract on the proposed plan as it would leave the government responsible for cost overruns with no incentive for Northrop Grumman to work to avoid such costs. The engineering and development phase of the program is valued at $21.4 billion according to the Air Force and is conditioned on a cost plus contract with incentive fees for coming in on budget. Such cost plus with incentive presumably works that if an incentive is juicy enough the contractor will produce the bid for project on budget in order to receive the incentive which would presumably be pure profit as no additional work is required within the scheduled time-frame. This, of course, begs a simple question as to whether the company is really doing any additional work to bring any project in under budget and gain the incentive is really more profitable for the company than having cost overruns and extensions on the delivery dates or whether running a project over budget and time is not more profitable as it also keeps employees on a project until the next project perhaps with the Navy or Army can be procured. The game of defense budgets and projects always appears as a nightmare in tricks, gadgets and more costs per-project as time goes by. Sure the aircraft today are far more intricate and sophisticated but so are design and production techniques. When the B-52s, now what one might call a venerable aircraft as it has served well past its intended time in service, were initially built the separate assemblies were built at the same location as the rest of the aircraft and the entire assembly had tolerances which today would be unacceptable but today half the fabrication of parts is performed by robotic units which produce part after part with what would be humanly intolerable accuracy. Robotic welding is common and do not even get started on the exotic materials used in these modern stealthy aircraft. So, without dragging this out, here is the artist’s rendering of the new B-21 bomber.



Northrop Grumman Corp designated the B-21 long-range bomber

Northrop Grumman Corp designated the B-21 long-range bomber


I can hear the reactions now; half of us are all but drooling on our keyboards while the other half are scratching their heads asking themselves, isn’t this just a slightly tweaked Northrop Grumman Corp B-2 Stealth Bomber? Well, of course not. This is an entirely different aircraft and can in no way be thought of as an aircraft utilizing the same airframe as the B-2 as the picture below demonstrates.



Northrop Grumman Corp B-2 Stealth Bomber

Northrop Grumman Corp B-2 Stealth Bomber


You can see the obvious differences, the air intake and more of a ‘W’ shaped body and there must be an unbelievably difference inside and in capabilities. Let us go to the source with comments by United States Air Force Secretary Deborah James who stated, “The B-21 will allow the Air Force to operate in tomorrow’s high end threat environment. Our fifth-generation global precision attack platform will give our country a networked sensor-shoot capability that will allow us to hold targets at risk in a way the world – and our adversaries – have never, ever seen.” Then Secretary Deborah James went on and clarified our confusion explaining, “The B-21 looks very similar to the B-2 and will employ existing technology.” Aha, it is made by the same company as who produced the B-2, it looks a lot like a B-2 and the B-21 will use the same technology as we currently have with the B-2 and we really need this new aircraft, a fifth generation aircraft which has so little to do with that old fourth generation B-2 aircraft. All right, I got it now, I think. Well, let us for argument’s sake compare them side by side and as all our searches for specifications produced this, ‘Very few specifics are known about the new stealth bomber,’ we are left to our own devices on this one for now. So, about the side by side and we are not going to label them.



B-2 vs B-21, What’s the Difference?

B-2 vs B-21, What’s the Difference?


We really should reserve final judgement on the B-21 until the specifications are made final. As I recall, there were munitions which could not be carried in the weapons bays (bomb bays) of the B-2 and it had to be one of the slowest bombers on the planet which made it completely unsuitable for daytime bombing for which there were fighter/bombers with stealth which could carry out such missions. Of course having a long-range bomber which is unsuitable for daylight raids apparently was not a concern to the Air Force when they contracted for the B-2 which once the B-21 hits production will be obsolete leaving the B-52, sorry, venerable B-52 as the long-range bomber of choice, unless it is a nighttime raid.


Perhaps it is just me but I thought the advantage of a long-range bomber was that it could reach almost any target from any airbase even if it literally had to fly half way around the globe, which, unless the physics have changed, means part of that mission going or returning is going to be flown in daylight conditions. Where this is all well and fine, when the missions one flies are in Iraq and the Iraqis have no aircraft which can be stationed in Europe, North Africa, Asia or on aircraft carriers, thus they were incapable of engaging a B-2 moving at the speed of well short of the sound barrier, makes it a lumbering fat and impossible to miss target. Even training targets would pose a greater challenge. Granted, the B-2 had speed all over a blimp but in daylight conditions it may as well have been a blimp. Hopefully they will have some really impressive thrust to weight ratios which will allow for some respectable speed with the B-21 and also have introduced new avionics and control circuitry and respective airfoils and wings making the B-21 at least marginally maneuverable. Perhaps the main reason for the B-21 is as a replacement initially for the B-2, it ended up being more of an experiment than an actual replacement for the B-52 fleet. This time they had better have gotten the mojo necessary to replace the high flying and initially invulnerable B-52 which still serves proudly well past what I like to call its air show and museum date. So, we will have to wait for more leaks which will tell us far more about the B-21 which, in all honesty, does appear to be a slightly tweaked B-2 stealth bomber. Without improved performance capabilities, they may as well as have put a new more stealthy advanced skin on a B-2 and saved development costs, but I am hoping for the American taxpayers that this bird can fly loops around both of its predecessors, the B-2 and the loud-n-proud old warrior which is older than its pilots, some of whose fathers also flew the B-52, a rarity in aviation. Even civilian aircraft do not have the lifespan of the average B-52 flown today. That will become one of the most respected and honored aircraft and will be a staple for museums, and if any get into private hands, impressive in a low and slow flyover at airshows; she will be missed.


Beyond the Cusp


1 Comment »

  1. CSPAN just ran details on the Bomber, first your cost is wrong, in FY16 dollars, it is 23.5 billion. The requirements have been fixed so the bids could be made, if there is a proposal to alter or change or add a requirement, it has to be personally approved by the COS of the Air Force. CPIF, is an interesting contract vehicle. Presumption that a contractor would merely overrun the contract to keep workforce employed has not been the history of any aerospace company to my knowledge and is illegal as fraudulent charges, the contractor could keep those people working, but not on this project (as an example), they would either have to go to overhead (unlikely, since that is capped as well on a program) or charge to another contract that Northrup has, like the RQ-180. The workforce is continually trimmed or increased as planned milestones and tasks must be met. As a simple example you don’t hire painters to sit for years until the first articles are produced. The earned value system prevents to a large degree that type of scenario. That is not to say that Northrup management will not apply a management reserve to problem areas to meet schedule. As a general statement I suspect that overruns are usually due to changed requirements, like the actual changes mid-development of the B-2, or contractor/subcontractor performance issues (e.g. staffing insufficient to execute milestones or task was not estimated correctly to begin with). In the case of this contract, it is described as utilizing mature technologies, with some risk, not at the level of the B-2, in the integration of the airframe. Since the blended wing has been a successful airframe for almost 28 years, the risk is described more as building a completely new aircraft requiring complicated integrations. (I.e. software). The contract structure, futhermore, has tied to it incentive fees that are reduced, or obliterated if specific milestone delivery dates are missed and delayed. The next milestone does not adjust date for a missed previous milestone. So for Northrup, it could snowball. What is not disclosed is the overall Incentive award fee structure and overall contract value. Now, regarding your comments about operations. Most stealthy aircraft fly at night, since this is an intercontinental bomber, the only thing necessary is that the time over target (TOT) be managed to occur at night. If this strategy were flawed, then the missions flown over Serbia from Missouri would have resulted in the loss of a B-2 or two. It’s also likely that in a nuclear strike role the follow on stand off weapon would be utilized making the “fat lumbering target” way far away. Your comment about the B-2 being obsolete once the B-21 has IOC in the Mid 20’s; is not something I have read, I think you ought to take another look at that one. More likely you will see gradual drawdowns in the B-1 fleet through attrition (even though it is no longer a nuclear penetrating bomber) and further reductions in the B-52 force. Needed maintenance on these older aircraft increase every year. There is no question we can keep them flying, but from a cost benefit perspective at some point it makes less sense to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Mark — March 8, 2016 @ 1:08 AM | Reply

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