Expert Commentary

B-21 Stealth Bomber: Balancing Transparency and Secrecy

Deborah Lee James
Former Secretary of the United States Air Force

America’s next stealth bomber, known as the B-21 Raider, will become the Air Force’s primary aircraft in the strategic bomber leg of the nuclear triad. Slated for delivery in 2025, it will employ cutting edge stealth and electronic warfare technologies while also incorporating a flexible architecture to allow for future technological advances. This will allow the B-21 to serve well into the 21st century as it replaces the Air Force’s ageing fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and eventually the B-2s. However, this high-tech option comes at a high cost. Each B-21 is expected to cost $550 million, though the total program cost remains a secret for national security reasons.

The Cipher Brief’s Will Edwards spoke to former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to learn more about the B-21’s mission in nuclear deterrence and advanced capabilities as well as the balance between transparency and security in the oversight of a top-secret program such as the B-21.

The Cipher Brief: The B-21 will utilize advanced stealth and electronic warfare technologies. Can you talk about these technologies and how they are going to contribute to the B-21’s core mission as a strategic bomber and as a leg of the nuclear triad?

Secretary Deborah Lee James: The central idea of the B-21 approach is that it is going to leverage decades experience from a variety of aircraft developmental programs. That is why we say it is using rather mature technologies, but they will be put together in a new and creative way. I’m talking about technologies that may have been developed during the era of the F-117, the F-22, the B-2, the F-35—all of these development programs have produced certain technologies and certain elements of stealth from which we have learned and which we will leverage as part of the B-21 program.

When it comes to the strategic mission of the B-21—which is of course to be the third leg of the triad— in order to be effective, if we come back to basics, it has to be credible. Maintaining the ability to penetrate even those difficult air defenses that an adversary may have is a big part of allowing our bomber force to continue to hold any target across the globe at risk. In the future, the B-21 will be mainly a valuable and visible deterrent, and it will be a central piece of the bomber leg of the triad that we consider to be the flexible leg of the triad, meaning if it is launched, it can be recalled.

TCB: Some critics have argued that it is too difficult to keep stealth technology ahead of enemy countermeasures. What do you think the value of stealth is?

James: It is certainly true that potential adversaries around the world have not been sitting on their hands, and that they too have been developing a variety of technologies that are worrisome to the United States. It is also true that stealth does not equal invisibility. What stealth does mean, and what it means as part of a package of technologies and approaches, is it is very difficult for enemy air defenses to detect it with the degree of stealth that we’re talking about. It’s not invisible, but very difficult to detect.

That’s not the only way that the B-21 would be able to penetrate. Stealth would be one part of the package, but there would be other technologies as well that would allow the B-21 to penetrate and basically break through some of the A2/AD technologies, which—no question—have been proliferating at a rapid pace. I think stealth is going to continue to be very important, but important as part of a total package of technologies and approaches that comprise the B-21.

Finally, the B-21 is being designed with an open architecture approach, and that is specifically with the recognition that new technologies will come into play in the future, and we want to be able to plug those new technologies into the B-21 as appropriate. The fact it is being designed with an open architecture approach will allow that adaptability and that incorporation of new technology in the future.

TCB: Currently, the Air Force intends to procure 100 B-21s, though there has been some debate over this number. How do we decide how many is enough? Do you think there could be more than 100 B-21s?

James: The number that planners usually put on a particular weapon system, particularly at this stage in development, is developed through the requirements definition process, and it usually relates to some number of squadrons and assumptions about how many aircraft would go in a squadron. As far as I can recall, the number of 100 was developed through that requirements process and has been validated through a number of studies dating back from the end of the Cold War forward.

With that said, I am aware that General Robin Brand, the Commander of Global Strike Command, has recently called for—in congressional testimony I believe—perhaps some higher number, I think it might have been as high as 150 B-21s. So it is certainly possible that the number can go up, and perhaps it should go up.

My sense is that it is probably time to revalidate the number of 100. It hasn’t been done for the last five or six years. Given the current state of world affairs, this would be a good time to revalidate it. I would say it would be really bad to go less than 100. If you go less than 100, then you get into the tyranny of small numbers, which of course makes the unit cost go up, up, up.

So, yes there could be more than 100, and what we need to do is revalidate that requirement given current world conditions. By the way, the B-21 will operate with the other bombers in the fleet, and there is a bomber study that General Brand is spearheading that I believe is due to be completed in the fall.

TCB: The total cost of the B-21 is a secret for security reasons, and it is likely to be one of the most expensive procurement programs currently underway. How do the Air Force and Congress balance the needs of transparency and security to keep a program such as this within budget?

James: You just said the magic word. The magic word is there is a balance here. In the case of total information about the program, that would be the contract cost as well as some of the secret sauce technical aspects to the program which are secret to the body politic as a whole—we don’t release this information to the press. But, please know that the elected representatives of the people, namely the key members of Congress that sit on the oversight committees and who have access to the higher classified information, have all of it. That is how classified programs are overseen by the U.S. Congress, and the B-21 is going through all of those procedures.

It is not as though the Air Force or the Pentagon is operating without oversight, that is not true. There is plenty of oversight, but it comes from the Congress.

On the one hand, you want to protect the crown jewels; on the other hand, you want to be as transparent as possible. During my tenure, we took a hard look at some of the lessons learned from the B-2, and what was shared with the public, when, and so forth.   We have tried to swing very much in the opposite direction as the approach taken in the B-2, toward more transparency. Not 100 percent transparency because there are key things that the experts tell us we should not give away. We certainly didn’t release the contract cost, but we did release a good deal of budget data pertaining to the B-21. We released an artist’s rendition of the basic look, but it wasn’t a completely accurate rendition, because we don’t want to give away too many details. We of course released the names of some of the companies who are involved. There has been more transparency, and the right people in Congress with the right clearances have full transparency and oversight.

Finally, I know that I was always committed, the chief [of the Air Force] is committed, and I’m sure the new secretary is committed to assessing and reassessing these security aspects, because as the program becomes more advanced, there will be more details that come to light in the public domain, but it has to be at the right time. This is where I think we will be smart to listen to our experts who are advising us.

The Author is Deborah Lee James

Secretary James has over 30 years of senior level homeland and national security experience in the federal government and private sector. During her time as Secretary, her responsibilities included the affairs of the Department of the Air Force, including the organizing, training, equipping and providing for the welfare of its nearly 660,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen and their families. Secretary James also oversaw the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $139... Read More

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