Billions and Billions for the B-21 Stealth Bomber

Conceptual drawing of the new B-21 stealth bomber

W.J. Astore

In a new article for I tackle the Air Force’s latest stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.  The project will likely cost $100 billion, and possibly much more than this over its lifetime.  Is this truly what we need for our national “defense”?

By their nature,  bombers are not defensive weapons. They’re designed to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming destructive force. In other words, the B-21, strictly speaking, is not for national defense: it’s for national offense. That’s why the U.S. Air Force speaks so proudly of “global strike” against “any target.” It’s the empowerment as well as the enshrinement of a vision of violent and disruptive action by the U.S. military anytime, anywhere, on the planet. If we weren’t Americans, we’d recognize this vision for what it really is: a form of militarism gone mad.

Here is an excerpt from my article at TomDispatch.

The Air Force’s Strange Love for the New B-21 Bomber
The Military-Industrial Complex Strikes (Out) Again
By William J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. 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 …

Here’s the nightmarish reality of actually bringing such weapons systems online: when the U.S. military develops a capability, it seeks to use it, even in cases where it’s wildly inappropriate. (Again, think of the massive B-52 bombings in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in a counterinsurgency campaign classically meant to win “hearts and minds.”) Fielding a new strategic bomber for global strike, including potential thermonuclear attacks, will not so much enhance national security as potentially embolden future presidents to strike whenever and wherever they want in a fashion devastating to human life. The B-21 isn’t a force-multiplier. It’s an Armageddon-enabler.

Flying High in our B-21s

Having marketed himself as a savvy military critic, is there any possibility that Donald Trump will have the smarts of Jimmy Carter when it comes to the B-21 program? Will he save America at least $100 billion (and probably far more) while eliminating yet another redundant weapons system within the Department of Defense? Fat chance. Even if he wanted to, The Donald doesn’t stand a chance against the Pentagon these days.

Flush with billions and billions of new taxpayer dollars, including funds for those F-35s and for new nukes from a bipartisan coalition in an otherwise riven Congress, America’s military services will fight for any and all major weapons systems, the B-21 included. So, too, will Congress, especially if Northrop Grumman follows the production strategy first employed by Rockwell International with the B-1: spreading the plane’s subcontractors and parts suppliers to as many states and Congressional districts as possible. This would, of course, ensure that cuts to the B-21 program would impact jobs and so drive votes in Congress in its favor. After all, what congressional representative would be willing to vote against high-paying jobs in his or her own state or district in the name of American security?

So here’s my advice to young model-builders everywhere: don’t blow up your B-21s anytime soon. Rest assured that the real thing is coming. If the Air Force wants to ensure that it has a new bomber, in the name of blasting America’s enemies to oblivion, so be it. It worked (partially and at tremendous cost) in 1943 in the flak- and fighter-filled skies of Nazi Germany, so why shouldn’t it work in 2043 over the skies of who-knows-where-istan?

Why does “your” Air Force think this way? Not just because it loves big bombers, but also because its biggest rivals aren’t in Russia or China or some “rogue” state like Iran. They’re right here in “the homeland.” I’m talking, of course, about the other military services. Yes, interservice rivalries remain alive and well at the Pentagon. If the U.S. Navy can continue to build breathtakingly expensive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (like the much-troubled USS Gerald R. Ford) and submarines, and if the Army can have all its tanks, helicopters, and associated toys, then, dammit, the Air Force can have what truly makes it special and unique: a new stealthy strategic bomber escorted by an even newer long-range stealthy fighter.

And don’t just blame the Air Force for such retrograde thinking. Its leaders know what’s easiest to sell Congress: big, splashy projects that entail decades of funding and create tens of thousands of jobs. As congressional representatives line up to push for their pieces of the action, military contractors are only too happy to oblige. As the lead contractor for the B-21, Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, has the most to gain, but other winners will include United Technologies of East Hartford, Connecticut; BAE Systems of Nashua, New Hampshire; Spirit Aerosystems of Wichita, Kansas; Orbital ATK of Clearfield, Utah, and Dayton, Ohio; Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; GKN Aerospace of St Louis, Missouri; and Janicki Industries of Sedro-Woolley, Washington. And these are just the major suppliers for that aircraft; dozens of other parts suppliers will be needed, and they’ll be carefully allocated to as many Congressional districts as possible. Final assembly of the plane will likely take place in Palmdale, California, integrating components supplied from sea to shining sea. Who says America’s coastal enclaves can’t join with the heartland to get things done?

Even if President Trump wanted to cancel the B-21 — and given his recent speech to graduates of the Naval Academy, the odds are that there isn’t a weapons system anywhere he doesn’t want to bring to fruition — chances are that in today’s climate of militarism he would face enormous push-back. As a colleague who’s still on active duty in the Air Force puts it, “What makes today worse than the Carter days is our flag-humping, military-slobbering culture. We can’t even have a discussion of what the country’s needs are for fear of ‘offending’ or ‘disrespecting’ the troops. Today, Carter would be painted as disloyal to those troops he was consigning to an early death because every procurement decision centers on a ‘grave’ or ‘existential’ threat to national security with immediate and deadly consequences.”

And so the Air Force and its flyboy generals will win the fight for the B-21 and take the American taxpayer along for the ride — unless, that is, we somehow have the courage to pry the control sticks from the cold, dead hands of hidebound military tradition and lobbying firepower. Until we do, it’s off we go (yet again), into the wild blue yonder, flying high in our B-21s.

Read the entire article here at

18 thoughts on “Billions and Billions for the B-21 Stealth Bomber

  1. re: bombing worked (partially) in WWII

    Actually it didn’t, as described in this book The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. One review here–(extract)

    . . .Mr Overy’s final verdict, however, is damning. He argues that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.”

    Will the military ineffectiveness of aerial bombing be changed by “precision munitions?” When confronted recently with a charge of random bombing on Iraq’s Mosul, a US military spokesperson said not to worry, precision munitions were used against military targets, was all. Baloney. The result of bombing Mosul can be seen here.

    NOTE: President Trump recently cited Mosul as a successful model for the stepped-up aerial bombing of defenseless Afghanistan and its people. That isn’t working out well (except for bomb-maker Lockheed) with Afghan casualties up 42% in a month.


    1. Overy is excellent. But his argument is that strategic bombing was “inadequate” to achieve its grand designs (true), not that it was entirely ineffective.

      Strategic bombing did hurt the German war effort. And it did lead to a massive aerial battle that destroyed the Luftwaffe. But it did these things at a tremendous cost, including the moral compromises that Overy mentions.

      We have to recall that the RAF and USAAF believed that strategic bombing could decisively defeat Nazi Germany, rendering traditional land invasions almost unnecessary. Such sweeping claims/beliefs were decisively proved to be wrong in World War II. Airpower served to weaken Nazi Germany, but only massive armies — primarily the Soviet one — could overthrow and destroy the Third Reich.


      1. German military production increased pretty much across the board throughout 1943 and 1944. Sabotage (a hazard of using slave labor) did more damage than strategic bombing. Production only started to crash once the Western Allies figured out that the oil and transportation infrastructure was the critical ‘node’ to hit – all those Panthers and Tigers were useless if they couldn’t be moved to the battlefield. And disrupting fuel deliveries reduced pilot training so much that the aircraft Germany sent up were outfought and their attacks mostly a waste after 1943. But even with total control of the skies, the war went right on to the bitter end.

        The effectiveness and efficiency of strategic attacks are one of those great American military myths. Cities are destroyed but the fight doesn’t end as planned. Korea was annihilated in the ’50s, and the war stalemated on the DMZ. Vietnam was annihilated, and Saigon still fell. Shock and Awe paralyzed Iraq’s regular army, then an old-fashioned insurgency sprouted up and consumed thousands of soldiers, despite annihilating Fallujah and Ramadi. Rubble is surprisingly easy to defend.

        Of course, the murderous jackals up in D.C. just declare victory no matter what happens, so it ends up not mattering much in the end. Until one of these days someone launches a strategic campaign against the US, or launches a decapitation strike with supersonic cruise missiles from an unknown submarine during some future State of the Union.


      2. It’s true that German military production increased in ’43 and ’44. That was because Hitler finally put the economy on a full war footing after the Stalingrad catastrophe. Speer also worked his “miracle.” So the rise in German war production doesn’t prove that strategic bombing was ineffective or counterproductive; only that Germany finally got its economic act together — and far too late.

        But I’m not defending the idea that strategic bombing was decisive or even a big contributor. It played an important or significant role in Germany’s defeat, but not a decisive or vital one. Of course, USAAF generals, seeking an independent AF, argued differently … and they got what they wanted, in 1947, with the creation of the USAF.


        1. All true, but the entire point of the strategic bombing campaign was supposed to be destroying Germany’s military production and civilian morale so it would surrender without requiring an invasion. Pretty much the same as the aerial bombardment campaigns the US has waged since, if you parse the arguments made by proponents.

          So sure, there was an effect on the German war effort, and the Allies had resources to spare so it wasn’t as if the campaign detracted from other efforts. But the effectiveness was way oversold, and the civilian casualties were an atrocity and war crime. Unfortunately, all our services incorporated their ‘successes’ into their postwar mythology, and failed to critically assess how poorly they actually performed in situations where they didn’t have massive superiority in numbers and training.

          Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Serbia, GWOT (or whatever it’s called now) – in every case air power is oversold as a means of winning a conflict. The B21 (and the article is great, by the way) is a continuation of generations of over-hyping air power. Stealth too is over-sold – enhanced computing power and combining sensor data from multiple platforms already negates most of the benefits against a peer-competitor. As you pointed out – the B21 is another white elephant that owes its existence more to inter-service rivalries than real military needs, just like the Ford class carriers and Abrams tanks.


      3. Yes. Oversold for sure. And the moral dimensions of killing roughly a million people (in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) in strategic bombing in WWII are not discussed enough.

        The new AF Global Strike Command (what used to be called SAC) is plain about its mission: “Airmen providing strategic deterrence, global strike and combat support…anytime,

        Think about global strike, and think about “anytime” and “anywhere,” and think about that exclamation point. How would America feel about any other country gushing about the ability to hit any country, any where in that country, with nuclear weapons? We’d be outraged.


        1. Exactly. At some point, Americans will have to give up the conceit of being special, better, righteous – whatever excuse for unilaterally policing the world (but always looking after own interests first!). That’s never worked for any people in the long run, ever, because we’re all human in the end.


  2. Right… billions now, and billions more later for a strategic nuclear bomber designed for a war that is (hopefully) never going to happen. Both the USA and USSR were building advanced projects in the FIFTIES for a war that was never going to happen. The best part is that this thing is probably never going to be used. The cabal of the Air Force and its defense contractors sucking up money for their lavish toys is one of the greatest shell games/ponzi schemes of all time, second only to the entire modern banking system.

    I would make the case that most military aircraft are, in fact, obsolete. I’m thinking about writing an article on my own blog making the case for missile cruisers over aircraft carriers, eliminating the middleman of the planes, especially the bombers. The Soviets knew this immediately after WWII. The Japanese built a submarine aircraft carrier, the I-400, for the purpose of attacking California. After it was captured, it served as the inspiration for the ballistic missile submarine, a type of ship that is far more popular with the Russians than the Americans, along with its surface-bound counterpart, the missile cruiser.

    I could go on, but it’s getting late.


    1. “The cabal of the Air Force and its defense contractors sucking up money for their lavish toys is one of the greatest shell games/ponzi schemes of all time, second only to the entire modern banking system.”


      1. I singled out the quote above from KAJA because it gets right to the heart of the matter regarding the vast money-laundering scam that some propaganda genius decided to call “defense” instead of the more accurate terms, “Warfare Welfare” and “Make-work Militarism.” George Orwell described the motivation for this deliberate misallocation of national wealth in “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” the book-within-a-book in 1984 (1949), especially in the section, “War is Peace”:

        The primary aim of modern warfareis to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living” [emphasis added]

        In other words, war-spending by the U.S. government, a wholly owned subsidiary franchise of the Global Corporate Oligarchy, has nothing to do with fighting “wars” against “enemies” with “this weapon” or “that weapon,” desultory and aimless “fighting” which the invention of atomic weapons has made obsolete in any event. Rather, U.S. “war” policy seeks to waste as much of the economy’s productive capacity as possible so that the “lower” mass of working-class proles cannot utilize their own labor and tax dollars to better their condition in life: an economic upward mobility which would “threaten” the exclusive hold on wealth and power maintained by a tiny caste of transnational financial speculators, i.e., corporate/banking/hedge-fund stockholders.

        Sheldon Wolin brought Orwell’s dystopean prognostications up to date in his masterfully detailed Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2006) when he wrote:

        “The wartime imaginary was not abandoned after 1945 but reconceived as a “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union, a showdown between capitalism and anticapitalism. The undeclared stake concerned domestic policy. Would the egalitarian tendencies encouraged by the New Deal and its accompanying faith in governmental regulation of the economy be resumed after World War II? The policy-makers of the Cold War would decide that issue by assigning a huge proportion of the nation’s resources to defense [war] rather than welfare [emphasis added]. The Cold War consolidated the power of capital and began the reaction against the welfare state but without abandoning the strong state. What was abandoned was all talk of participatory democracy.”

        Since the end of WWII, “war” spending by the U.S. “government” has had, as its only objective, the willfull wasting of any and all government resources that might benefit the greater number of U. S. citizens. Foreign “enemies” have nothing whatsoever to do with this purely domestic pillage and plunder. The U.S. military could bomb the penguins in Antarctica — stealthily, of course, so as not to alert penguin “bird strike” air defense systems — for all the difference America’s “enemies” make. As Orwell wrote: “In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance” [emphasis added]. Therefore, U.S. warfare policy exists exclusively to make sure that few, if any, government revenues go towards alleviating poverty and ignorance. In fact, U.S. warfare policy (and the seething religious fascism that keeps that policy in power) makes every effort to exacerbate both of these national afflictions.

        Best of all, though, from the Ruling Corporate Oligarchy’s point of view, the military-spending counter-revolution against F.D.R.’s New Deal that began at the end of WWII has not only succeeded, but has made its own reversal a practical impossibility. As Sheldon Wolin explained:

        “Counterrevolution means, not a return to the past — the powers fostering it are too dynamic — but a closing off of a demotic direction and the nudging of society toward a different direction where inequalities will be taken for granted, rationalized, perhaps celebrated. Not the least of the counterrevolutionary conditions promoting cultural, economic, and political inequalities are the ingenious barriers that the Bush administration erected to prevent future administrations from alleviating inequalities. By enacting measures that according to virtually every account primarily benefited the wealthiest, and by amassing ever-increasing government deficits to astronomical proportions, that administration has effectively prevented a future democratically oriented administration from enacting social programs for the Many [emphasis added]. The aim of the counterrevolutionary strategy is the permanent institutionalization of a counter democratic state.

        In other words: “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter,” as Deputy Dubya’s Vice President Dick Cheney put the case for cruel cupidity. I would put it differently: namely, Rob the Future Now, because no one ever heard the Future scream “Stop! Thief!”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Warfare as welfare, and in more than one sense. Warfare replaces welfare even as “warriors” are equated with the health of America. “Support our troops” is the new (and only) national health care plan.


  3. We recently celebrated Memorial Day. Here in Indianapolis, we have the Indy 500 Race. I was out cutting the grass, when I read a rumbling over head, louder then the usual commercial jet plane. I looked up and there was a stealth type plane, cruising by heading toward the Speedway. A few years ago they had a flight of “wart hogs” fly over. I wonder how much it cost, the taxpayers for this senseless display.

    Big news in Agent Orange Land is the Super Bowl Champions Philadelphia Eagles were dis-invited to the House of Orange. “They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.” (Side bar – when Agent Orange had the chance to be in the military, he received numerous deferments)

    Agent Orange says >> “We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3pm, The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!”<<< Agent Orange stayed in the locker room so to speak when he was in danger of being drafted.<<<<


    1. Beginning in late September 2001, I’ve had warthogs flying over my house every now and then as well. Of course, I live about thirty miles from an army base, so that may not mean anything. I’m not challenging your point about the cost, however. I’m sure those regular patrols also cost a tremendous amount of OUR money.

      As far as Trump’s own military service, or lack thereof, I might point out that integrity is like oxygen: the higher your climb, the scarcer it gets. At this point, I’m convinced that Donald Trump is a television character played by a real estate mogul named Donald Trump. The question is “which one is actually the president?”


    2. Trump is a pompous, self-absorbed, ass. It seems like he’s always been one. How people could see him as a savior and vote for him is one of the mysteries of the age, one that’s only partly explained by the quality of the opposition (Hillary).

      Certainly, most mainstream Republicans have with alacrity sacrificed their principles for power. They’re likely to stay with Trump until he does something truly and catastrophically dumb, like pardoning himself. But this is the way egomaniacs think: Of course I can pardon myself. I’ve done nothing wrong. Believe me!


      1. Democrats are by and large craven cowards too, lets not forget. They claim the mantle of ‘resistance’ right now, but it’s all games. They have convinced themselves that Trump will be as easy to beat in 2020 as he would have in 2016 without, you know, all those Russia-backed ads on Facebook messing everything up. And most of the media is happy with that narrative, so nothing changes. Even though the American political system has been largely deadlocked and decaying since the end of the Cold War, in desperate need of reform, the political and economic rent seeking is just too damned high.

        Excellent theory (or at least metaphor) for this in systems ecology: complex adaptive systems (basically, any time you have a bunch of freely interacting agents sharing a common environment and resources you have a CAS) go through distinct phases: rapid growth, slowing growth, collapse, reconfiguration. The trick in management is to reform before the slow growth phase is hit by a shock, leading to a collapse. Trick in managing humans is that those who have most benefited during the slowing growth phase rarely want to allow reforms (too much uncertainty), and eventually the system hits metabolic crisis where the parts are forced to compete in a degrading environment, accelerating the degradation (competition consumes resources).

        So because no one in power is willing to risk being the sucker who loses out in a reform, everyone is doomed to go through the crash and reconfiguration.

        I think this explains the rise and fall of empires rather well


  4. I’d just like to say I read and love your article. I was born in ’73 and had a front row seat to the big ’80s defense build-up/shopping spree. My dad was Navy public affairs and had a top secret clearance, so I was exposed to a lot of fascinating reading material as a kid ( no implications here; I grew up reading Jane’s and the Soviet Military Power annuals and CIA assessments documenting everything from GDP to available manpower of draftable age). While not classified, it wasn’t necessarily something widely disseminated either, and I formed an early opinion of spending versus threat, and strategic need. The absurdity of requisitioning more ICBMs, for instance. I applaud thought over bluster and “toughness.” We need people like Pierre Sprague, you, and your Air Force friend to thoughtfully contribute to the national dialogue going forward, especially in the current manifestation of the Great National Shouting Match.


  5. Another great essay. If only reason were involved in elections and the general public were taking in articles like the ones you write. Trump is the man for our times, elected on the power of blind rage at government, the government he is now busily taking apart in all the areas where it acts as a watchdog for we the people, clearing a broad path for the fleecing of us all by big business, fleecing being something he is known for in his own business deals and that he flaunts when he refused outright to have his income tax returns looked at. 2018 is a critical year. We will see this fall is there is any hope for turning our democracy of lobbies back into one for the people.


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