Why No Love For The B-21?


When I was a budding juvenile delinquent growing up in the Texas oil patch, I was at least smart enough to get myself an aircraft identification book. I can’t remember the title, but I’d bet it was something like The Golden Book of Modern Airplanes. I had a lot of those Golden Books and I credit the series with my interest in both airplanes and pyromania. (The Golden Book of High Volatility Flammable Aromatic Hydrocarbons.)

One of the airplanes in that book was the B-36 Peacemaker. No one called it that, though. If they didn’t call it a turd, they just called it the B-36. But it was the sound of the thing I remember. We lived about 300 miles northwest of the then-Carswell Air Force Base, where the Strategic Air Command based most of the fleet. The B-36s would fly over at all hours on their way for chow in Alaska. The humming-throbbing sound of six Pratt R-4360 Wasp Majors in a pusher configuration was like nothing I’d ever heard. I think the throbbing was because they could never get six props exactly synchronized. You can hear a little of it here between June Allison’s chiffon skirt rustling and the official Air Force-approved rising crescendo of impending nuclear doom music. The film is, of course, Strategic Air Command (filmed in Sky Filling Vista Vision!), starring Jimmy Stewart.

Because I hadn’t yet read The Golden Book of Really Stinky Military Industrial Complex Blunders, I had no way of knowing that the B-36 was an “interim bomber.” (“They’re all interim bombers,” growled the cigar-chomping Curtis LeMay.) But 65 years later, older and wiser, I’m still shocked to learn that the $2 billion B-2 Spirit, which I thought was, you know, state of the art, is actually an interim bomber. Well, maybe not that exactly, but now we apparently need something better. And kinda quick.

And so a few months ago, the Air Force tugged it out of the hangar in Palmdale, California: the B-21 Raider, named in honor of who shall ever be known as the Doolittle Raiders. The announcement landed like a sodden pillow. On the plus side, unlike most defense projects, the B-21 is neither over budget nor late. The Air Force says it will cost $203 billion to develop and operate 100 airplanes for 30 years. The unit cost is said to be about $692 million. While that’s not much less than the B-2’s unit cost of $737 million, when adjusted for constant dollars back to 1997, when the B-2 was purchased, it’s a little more than half. And only 21 B-2s were produced; 20 are still in service. When proposed, 132 were planned.

At 100 planned, the B-21 fleet will be the same size as the B-1 fleet at its peak. The B-2 will be retired in 2032. If it makes it, that’s 35 years in service which, all things considered, is not so bad. Better than the B-36 (11 years), the B-47 (26 years), the B-29 (17 years) and even the B-17 at 21 years. It is unlikely any military aircraft will match the B-52, which has been in service for 67 years and is expected to remain so well into the 2050s. Of the 742 built, 76 BUFFs are still active.

Yeah, but … what’s the B-21 supposed to do exactly? The same was asked of the B-36 and a trumped-up scandal swirled around its procurement and introduction. It was originally conceived in the thought that the U.S. would have to bomb German-occupied Britain or Europe directly from the East Coast in preparation for an invasion. When that became unnecessary, the first atomic weapons conveniently arrived, the Soviet Union was seen as the new menace and the B-36 suddenly found a new and “vital” role as a nuclear bomber. Operationally, it was supposed to fly high enough to evade Soviet fighters, but by the late 1950s, that artifice was abandoned as the B-52 was deployed.

Seventy years later, the rationale for the B-21 has come full circle. But with an interesting twist, according to the defense press. Aircraft carriers are the backbone of U.S power projection, but China is believed to have developed a suite of ship-killing missiles that would be impossible to defend against and would force carriers to remain as much as 1000 miles distant, neutralizing their airwings. So the idea is to have a super stealthy bomber to knock out the missile sites, thus clearing a path for the Navy’s unstealthy aircraft. The B-21 might have to fly directly from U.S. bases. It hasn’t flown yet but is supposed to later this year. In-service is in 2027, the same year that defense planners are leaking that China will invade Taiwan. Given the arc of AI and autonomous development, the B-21 may be the first major robot bomber.

Of course, the immediate question is, can’t the B-2 do this? No other country has radar-evading bombers even remotely as capable as the B-2, although the Chinese are developing a B-2 knockoff called the H-20. Evidently, in a new era of improved radar, the B-2’s stealth isn’t as impressive as it once was. Its radar cross section is 0.1 square meters, variable with aspect. For comparison, the F-22’s RCS is 0.001 M2. Data on the B-21 is scarce, but some sources give it as 0.0004 M2. That’s pretty close to being invisible, something Northrop Grumman achieved by improving the engine inlets and exhaust and through advanced RF absorptive coatings. If the Chinese haven’t stolen the technology, like they have everything else, the B-21 might be the deterrent it’s advertised to be. So, the theory goes, it actually prevents a war.

Weapons like these are presumably developed in anticipation of needing them and U.S. planners are anticipating war with China. I suppose it’s better to have the arsenal ready ahead of needing it while hoping the need never arises. On the other hand, the U.S. version of Russia’s corruption in arms procurement is very legal influence pedaling and lobbying that goes on to buy systems of dubious efficacy. It’s why the F-35 has two engine options, because congress people in the districts where they’re manufactured made it so. This is what outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower warned about when he said we should be cognizant of undue influence of the military industrial complex leading us to war.

Maybe that’s why the B-21 doesn’t seem to get the love other dazzling military airplanes have. As an aviation-conversant taxpayer, I look at the thing and wonder if I’m seeing a modern iteration of the Peacemaker. Maybe that’s why no one tapped me to be a defense planner. I’m way too cheap for the job. These things seemed a lot simpler when Jimmy Stewart—a genuine Air Force general—was around to explain them.


The reason for the B-21 dates back to what happened on this day 78 years ago at 5:29 a.m. in a barren patch of New Mexico desert. The secretive Manhattan Project detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Mark Oct. 21 on your calendar. That’s when the Trinity site will be open for public visitation. Expect heavy crowds, says the Army, on account that the new film, Oppenheimer, is opening this week. It’s sure to stir up interest in the site and that’s a good thing.

An overused cliché has to do with something changing things forever, but the Trinity test really did. Including aviation. From that point forward, every major combat aircraft system was designed with nuclear weapons in mind. Interestingly, the B-29, the only aircraft to have ever delivered nuclear weapons in combat, was not. It was adapted to the purpose. Same with the B-36.

The test occurred before I was born, but my parents lived about 360 miles from Trinity. It was said that flash was visible in the western sky. My Dad was a research scientist at the time and was pressed into service by the town to explain what atomic fission was. He later said he understood the theoretical underpinnings well enough, but had no idea how the talented team under J. Robert Oppenheimer pulled it off.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. You forgot MY first USAF airplane … the B-58A “Hustler.” It was operational for only 10 years (1960 – 1970) and originally flew out of Carswell and Bunker Hill AFB, IN. Later, the Carswell airplanes moved up to Little Rock AFB, AR. It was a Mach 2 airplane powered by four J79 engines. 116 were built but only 86 were operational airplanes split between the two bases. Eight are on display at various locations. It had an ejection cocoon which allowed supersonic ejection.


    • Wasn’t the B-58 a dicey airplane? I’ve heard (don’t know whether it’s true) that loss of an outboard engine at Mach 2 would likely cause a serious loss of control, if not worse.

      • I wasn’t a B-58 pilot so I can’t answer that question. By interpolation, however, I can tell you that when you’re going M1.5 in an F-15 and yank the power levers to flight idle, it’s like hitting a brick wall. So a J79 that far from the B-58 centerline would likely be a problem.

        Here’s an interesting factoid about the B-58. Not originally fitted with an ejection cocoon, when they were later fitted they needed to be tested at Edwards AFB. So the USAF enlisted a bear — a REAL bear, drugged — and put it in the aft seat and popped it out in flight. The bear lived. Then, some half-crazed Chief (E-9) volunteered to do it. He lived, too. Everyone who worked the B-58 had to go to ejection seat training which was a more gentle two stage process run by bottled nitrogen. First, the leg and arm ‘grabbers’ pulled in your parts. When the operator was sure it was safe, they’d fire stage 2 and then you were in the thing albeit with a little window so the others could peer in and laugh at you. It was said that if you ever emptied the survival gear out of one, you’d need a station wagon to haul it all away. AND … it was a boat, too … it’d float. I was a bomb/nav type; the computers in the thing were all analog … only the upgraded radar had some first generation integrated circuits in it.

        Also, the B-58 had a clothesline in it so that the crew could move things between cockpits … true story. With one pilot, it had a system to ‘talk’ to the pilot to remind him about things … they recorded a sweet sounding secretary’s voice to do it.

        Overall, the B-58 was an amazing airplane. I was there when the Wing Commander did a high speed pass down the flightline in 1970 taking the last one at Little Rock AFB to the boneyard.

  2. The B-21 is “visual proof that our nation’s technical prowess remains unrivaled and that we can accelerate change and mindfully prepare to deter, meet, and blunt threats now and in the future.”
    General C.Q. Brown, Chief of Staff of the Air Force

  3. B-58 what a hot rod!
    I was a nuclear qualified Intruder pilot. Our favorite movie on deployment was the dark comedy, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
    Full circle indeed!

  4. I’ve always been fascinated by the B-36–mostly because it looks so improbable. In the early 90s, I took a B-52G to Springfield, MA as a static display for an open house at Westover ARB. While I was there, I met a man who claimed he picked up “his” B-36 at the factory, and eventually flew it to the Boneyard. I also met a few of the Tuskegee Airmen. That was an epic weekend TDY.
    That G model B-52 was retired soon after.

  5. Frustrating as it is, there doesn’t seem to be any real alternative to the endless -and expensive- process of staying up with the defense technology wave. Curt LeMay could just as well have said “it’s ALL interim”.

    Technological advances can strike deep. The Navy problem Paul mentions was simmering for a long time before the current China planning crisis brought it front center. The aircraft carrier, long a backbone element within our force projection strategies, has been relegated to B-52 status; still useful in some situations but dead meat if dispatched against a peer enemy.

  6. There is nothing exciting about it. I’d rather watch a lawn mower fly. In fact, my worst airshow nightmare would be where every plane is an F-35. The VTOL versions especially remind me of a stink bug.

  7. When I was in high school my family lived about five miles south of Carswell in Fort Worth. By that time, the B-36 had been retired, but both the B-52 and B-58 were active. Every morning the 52s would lumber off, often over the house, on their daily patrols. You could hear them rumbling along well before they arrived, so they would never sneak up on you. The B-58 was a different animal. With four powerful engines and a tiny wing, it had to fly fast, really fast, just to get airborne. When they came over, there was little warning, just a sudden huge roar as it zipped overhead, seemingly about ten feet above the house. It would scare the crap out of you. Even in those patriotic days, the Hustler was not popular among the neighbors. Thankfully the 58s got moved somewhere else and we only had to endure the BUFFs. To this day, I have a soft spot in my heart for the big, lumbering B-52, but I still don’t like the Hustler. BTW, I love the flying scenes in Strategic Air Command and the sequence where Jimmy Stewart did his first takeoff that showed the complex process in getting all ten engines running before departure. Some really good photography for the day.

      • My one fond memory of the B-58 was the day that they had the air show at Carswell where the B-70 was on display. Late in the day, they were taking the B-70 back to California. They were using a B-58 as a chase plane. It took off first and circled around to shadow the 70 as it started its takeoff roll. The two planes were about even as the Valkyrie lifted off, but once airborne, it seemed to accelerate and walk away from the Hustler. You can imagine the noise when both planes were accelerating together!

  8. Whatever the excuse for designing the B-36, its procurement was solely a jobs project for Texans mandated by Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson in Congress. They YB49 Northrop Flying Wing was 100 mph faster, with greater range and heaver bomb load, but was to be built in the wrong state. My dad was in Jack Northrop’s office when the Air Force sent a platoon of enlisted men to cut up every one of his Flying Wings so there’d never be any evidence of the political corruption. Jack was in tears, and that’s why there isn’t an XB37 or YB49 in USAF museum in Dayton or anywhere else. And The B-36 was never allowed near Korean conflict, or even potential European conflict, as it could be chased down from behind and shot down by a stock P-51 Mustang. Had no chance in the jet era that was already underway by 1949… At least the Air Force apologized to Jack when they invited him to Pico Rivera to see prototype of B-2 under construction…

    • That probably explains why the Air Force was so willing and supportive of filming Strategic Air Command back then. They probably needed a little good PR to justify the plane and its expense to the general public.

    • While I agree with you on the YB-49, I’m not so sure about your comment of a stock P-51 Mustang being able to chase down a B-36 at altitude. From what I’ve read, the fastest stock Mustang was the P-51B, the old “razorback” version which could reach a maximum speed of about 440 mph at an altitude of around 26,000 feet. One of these P-51s would be hard pressed to chase down a B-36 maxed out at 435 mph, at an altitude of 38,000 feet.

      I had a good friend who flew F9F Panthers (straight wing) for the Marines. He was TDY (Temporary DutY) at the old Roosevelt Roads Naval Base at the east end of Puerto Rico, when he had the chance to try to intercept a B-36 that was cruising at altitude. My friend was stooging around at an altitude a little lower than the B-36 when he decided to “intercept” it. The only problem was that his jet hot rod could not catch the old lumbering B-36.

      • One issue for B-36 was that if flight engineer cranked all the engines up to max cruise power one of them would fail rather promptly… That is why it wasn’t capable of participating in combat.. And an F-86 or Mig-15 was faster than an F-9… Just saying…

    • I think the B49 would been a fantastic bomber but double check me on this. The B49 bomb bays were not big enough to accommodate the thermonuclear bombs that the B36 could carry.

  9. Paul’s quip about nobody using the B-36’s Peacemaker name reminds me of the old timer’s quip that the B-36 could have been nicknamed the “Pacemaker” due to the health effects on the flight engineers (plural) of having to ride herd on 10 engines using two mutually exclusive fuel systems.

    • Exclusive fuel systems? Are you sure? Early jet engines had to run on normal aviation fuel. Dedicated jet fuels weren’t readily available until later.

  10. The J47-GE-19 turbojets on the B-36s burned 115/145 purple AvGas, just like the P&W “corncobs”. If it was bad for the ground crew to have to change lead-fouled spark plugs in the recips, what would it have been like to scrape lead deposits out of the power turbines in the jets?

    • A friend of mine who was in the Air Force when they flew KC97’s with the jets told me they would run walnut shells through the engines to clean out the lead deposits!

  11. The B-21 looks so much like the B-2, why didn’t they just call it B-2A (or B-2B), If the main difference is the radar-proof coating and engine inlet and outlet modifications?

  12. Does anyone think that the Chinese don’t know more about the B21 than our own US Air Force? It is the policy of the current administration that we help the Chinese maintain an equal military footing with the US so we don’t have an unfair advantage should the need arise. General Milly states as much.

  13. Trinity/B21/B29 good historical connection, Paul. Oppenheimer the movie, I now have tickets for the 24th. Sold out for earlier. Living in Santa Fe I’ve become super interested in the history of the Manhattan Project as I had a student, a scientist, that had been involved in about 90 nuclear explosions going back to Trinity. I’m glad you brought up the delivery platform relationship as the topic is of high interest in our old folk community.

  14. No-one really likes something they cannot see. During the 1990s Balkan wars troops on the ground used to say stealth bombers were so stealthy not even the enemy knew when they had flown missions…

  15. Ever since WWII, there has been the Bomber Mafia and the Fighter Mafia. They are opposite ends of the USAF spectrum that fights for only one thing – Dollars.

    LeMay and SAC were at the pinnacle of the Bomber Mafia in the 50s, 60s and 70s. At one point, you couldn’t be CSAF without being CINCSAC.

    The Fighter Mafia took over in the Vietnam era and afterwards witness the F15, F-16, A-10 (which the USAF hates because it’s slow) the F-15E, F-22 (only 187 made, thanks John McCain) and the F-35. This is also why the B-52 has been around so long. No fighter pilot wants to give $$$$ to buy bombers when you can buy lots of fighters.

    Night time stealth bombing is where it’s at now, which is why the BUFF needs to retire, but can’t until the B-21 comes on line. But you’re not going to hear a bunch of fighter pilots at the top of the USAF give any love to the B-21 when they’re trying to grab as many F-35s as possible.

    Stealth is going to be the deciding factor in the next conflict in the Pacific, because there’s no triple canopy jungle or mountains to hide out in the 100 mile expanse between China and Taiwan.

  16. So one would think the BUFFs would be using cruise missiles with the range capability to reach China from Guam, or thereabout?! But very visible for China’s satellites so they would not arrive unannounced.

    We haven’t had a bomber since the WWII era (and the decade after that) and that probably saved the SwAF a lot of money, over the years.

    But indeed, the new bomber looks like the old one, so it should be called B.2.1!

  17. Off topic: When the company store is sold, changes are expected, as new owners bring their own rules and expectations. It’s all part of the ever-changing dynamics in the business world. And even though things change, there is an ongoing line of succession or a continuation of some aspect in a new form.