Exclusive: Air Force abandons B-21 piloted drone concept

Rendering of the B-21 Raider. (Northrop Grumman)

LONDON: Last year, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall made headlines when it announced plans to develop a similar drone that has yet to be unveiled B-21 inconspicuous bomber. Now it seems the project is dead before it even got off the ground.

“The idea of ​​a joint combat aircraft with a similar range is not cost-effective, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to go in that direction,” he told Breaking Defense in an exclusive interview with the Royal International Air Tattoo.

After some analysis, the idea turned out to be “less attractive than we thought,” Kendall said, and the reasoning came down to value. Bombers are inherently large aircraft – not only because they can carry large weapons, but also because they can fly the long distances necessary for an aircraft to deliver a strategic strike anywhere in the world. But that size could add to the cost, and in the end, the Air Force decided it wasn’t worth developing an unmanned counterpart to the B-21 that would be comparable in size to the large bomber.

“For relatively small platforms, taking the crew out can make it much cheaper,” he said. “But on the big rigs, you don’t get as much because the crew is only a small fraction of the weight, a small fraction of the cost in comparison.”

Kendall was the first to announce his intention to start two new secret drone programs to Politics in December. Later that month, he revealed that one of these was to be a B-21 chain of sorts and part of a larger family of systems that would accompany the B-21 in combat.

“B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain load and range. We would like to increase that penetration, which is valuable.” he said December 9.

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As one of Kendall’s seven top priorities — what he calls “operational imperatives” — the Air Force spent six months analyzing how it might structure the B-21 family of systems, soliciting ideas from industry and evaluating that input.

While the idea for a B-21 drone counterpart ultimately didn’t pan out, Kendall noted that other ideas are bearing fruit. “There are other things we can do with the B-21 in the context of family systems that we think are interesting,” Kendall said, adding that he could not go into detail given the classified nature of the program.

Kendall’s other idea for a classified unmanned combat aircraft is a “Loyal Wing”-style drone that could pair with the fifth-generation F-35 and the Air Force’s upcoming sixth-generation fighter jet, known as the Next generation air dominance — is still of great interest to the service and a program he remains “enthusiastic about,” he said.

The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 B-21 Raiders from prime contractor Northrop Grumman over the course of the program. Tom Jones, head of Northrop’s aeronautics sector, confirmed to Breaking Defense today that the company is still on track to deliver the first B-21 by the end of 2022. Exclusive: Air Force abandons B-21 piloted drone concept

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