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The Air Force names its futuristic bomber after World War II Tokyo raid

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD --- The Air Force went deeply into its history to name its proposed new strategic bomber, announcing Sept. 19 that it will be the called the B-21 "Raider" in honor of Jimmy Doolittle's Tokyo raiders from World War II.


The name was announced by retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, who was Doolittle's copilot and is the last surviving member of the 80 Army Air Corps airmen who flew 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers from the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, to bomb multiple targets in Japan.

The USS Hornet had 16 U.S. Army Air Forces North American B-25B Mitchells on deck, ready for the Tokyo Raid on April 18, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cole, now 101, said he was "humbled to be here representing Gen. Doolittle and the raider. I wish they were here."

The announcement came in the opening session of the Air Force Association's Air, Space, Cyber conference here. Cole was introduced by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who said "the legacy of Air Force strategic air power continues" with the proposed stealthy bomber, which is to be built by B-2 Spirit bomber builder Northrop Grumman.

Retired Lt. Col. Robert E. Cole, a B-25 Mitchell bomber co-pilot and survivor of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, answers questions in the Airman's Hall at the Pentagon, Nov. 5, 2105. Cole toured the Pentagon and met with service members to share the history of the Doolittle Raiders. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Carlin Leslie)

The Air Force has said it wants at least 100 B-21s at a projected cost of $550 million each. It would replace the B-52Hs, which are approaching 50 years old, in the nuclear deterrence missions. Later, it also could replace the 1980s-vintage B-1Bs, which are limited to conventional bombing.

But the program already has come under attack from arms control advocates and from other defense critics who argue that the nation cannot afford another hyper-expensive aircraft while still struggling with the fifth generation F-35 fighters.

James listed the B-21 among the Air Force's top three acquisition programs, along with the Lockheed Martin produced F-35 and the KC-46A aerial refueling plane, being built by Boeing.

In a panel session later in the day, Gen. Rand, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command which would employ the new bomber, said the B-21 was necessary to keep the nation's long-range strike capabilities reliable and effective.

Rand said he has set 100 B-21s as the absolute minimum required, based on the current and projected requirements from the geographic combatant commanders. And, Rand noted, the Air Force currently has 158 combat ready bombers. "I cannot imagine the nation or the Air Force having one less than we have now."

Although the actual buy would be determined after the first of the new bombers are delivered, Rand said, "I'm going to stick to my guns, that 100 is the minimum."

The panel was asked how they could expect the B-21 coming in on time and at the estimated cost when every major weapon system in decades has fallen behind schedule and run well over projected price.

Lt. Gen. James Holmes, deputy Air Force chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, said they were doing a base lining study with the contractor, but had a cost-plus contract for research and development that has incentives for Northrop "to deliver on cost and on schedule. The contract also sets a fixed price for the first five blocks of bombers, "which  normally are the most expensive," Holmes said.

"All indications are we will beat the $550 [million] estimated cost," he said.

The B-21 program also is being managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is designed to reduce the bureaucracy and paperwork involved with procurement.

Randall Walden, director of that office, said the B-21 was being designed with "open architecture" requirements, which make it easier to upgrade technology, particularly in the sophisticated electronic systems that drive up much of the cost of new high-tech weapons. He estimated that could save "upward of 50 to 80 percent of the cost" over the life of the bomber.

Artist rendering of B-21 Raider bomber. (Photo from U.S. Air Force)

Holmes was asked how the Air Force could afford its top three procurement program along with all the other expenses it had and the limited budgets expected. He said that because the F-35, KC-46 and B-21 were the top priorities, they are funded first when the Air Force crafts its budget and the other programs are funded with what is left.

He also said the Air Force plans to push through some of the lesser programs, such as replacing the Vietnam-vintage UH-1 helicopters that provide security and mobility at its Minuteman III missile bases, before the big spending starts on the B-21 and the Minuteman replacement.

The panel also was asked about whether the B-21 would be manned or remotely piloted. Rand and Walden both said current plans were to have it manned.

Rand said some future systems could be unmanned. "Personally, I like the idea of having a man, or a woman, in the loop," he said.