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HomeDefenseExclusive: Air Force scraps B-21 drone wingman concept

Exclusive: Air Force scraps B-21 drone wingman concept

A rendering of the B-21 Raider. (Northrop Grumman)

LONDON: Last year, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall made headlines when he announced plans to develop a drone counterpart for the still-yet-to be unveiled B-21 stealth bomber. Now, it appears the project is dead before it ever got off the ground.

“The idea of a similar range collaborative combat aircraft is not turning out to be cost effective, so it looks like we’re not going to go that direction,” he told Breaking Defense in an exclusive interview at the Royal International Air Tattoo.

After doing some analysis, the idea appears to be “less attractive than we thought it might be,” Kendall said, with the reasoning coming down to value. Bombers are by nature large planes — not only so they can carry large weapons payloads, but so they can fly at the long ranges needed for an aircraft to conduct a strategic strike anywhere in the world. But that size can drive cost, and in the end, the Air Force determined it wasn’t worth developing an unmanned B-21 counterpart that would be comparable in size to a large bomber.

“For relatively small platforms, taking a crew out can make it much cheaper,” he said. “But for large platforms, you don’t gain that much because the crew is only a small fraction of the weight, a small fraction of the cost by comparison.”

Kendall first announced his intention to start two new classified drone programs to Politico in December. Later that month, he disclosed that one of them was meant to be a wingman, of sorts, to the B-21, and part of a larger family of systems that would accompany the B-21 into battle.

“The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range. We’d like to amplify that capability it has to penetrate, which is valuable,” he said on Dec. 9.

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As one of Kendall’s seven major priorities — what he terms “operational imperatives — the Air Force has spent half a year analyzing how it could structure a B-21 family of systems, soliciting industry for ideas and evaluating those inputs.

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

Kendall’s other idea for a classified unmanned combat aircraft — a “Loyal Wingman”-style drone that could be paired with the fifth generation F-35 and the Air Force’s future sixth-generation fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance — is very much still of interest to the service and a program he remains “excited” by, 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, Northrop’s head of its aeronautics sector, confirmed to Breaking Defense today that the company is still on track to roll out the first B-21 by the end of 2022.

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