US arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman recently unveiled its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider. Having not even flown yet and still facing an extensive critical design review, it won’t enter service any time in the immediate future.
The B-21 Raider is estimated to cost around 753 million US dollars per aircraft – a significant sum for an aircraft experts seem to believe will have less-than-significant capabilities.
Despite the dramatic ceremony surrounding its unveiling and claims that it serves “as part of the Pentagon’s answer to rising concerns over a future conflict with China,” according to one NPR article, even its advocates across the West seem to lack confidence the new stealth aircraft could evade the integrated air defenses of nations like Russia and China.
The B-21 Raider is ultimately an illustration of how despite the US outspending its rivals, it does not possess any real advantage on, or in this case, above the battlefield.
Western Analysts on the B-21 Raider’s Capabilities
The National Interest in an article titled, “Stealth vs. Missiles: Who Wins When Russia’s S-400 Takes On America’s New B-21 Raider?,” attempts to make a case for the massive amount of money invested in the new aircraft.
A new generation of stealth technology is being pursued with a sense of urgency, in light of rapid global modernization of new Russian and Chinese-built air defense technologies; advances in computer processing, digital networking technology and targeting systems now enable air defenses to detect even stealth aircraft with much greater effectiveness.
Russian built S-300 and S-400 air defense weapons, believed by many to be among the best in the world, are able to use digital technology to network “nodes” to one another to pass tracking and targeting data across wide swaths of terrain. New air defenses also use advanced command and control technology to detect aircraft across a much wider spectrum of frequencies than previous systems could.
This technical trend has ignited global debates about whether stealth technology itself could become obsolete. “Not so fast,” says a recent Mitchell Institute essay – “The Imperative for Stealth,” which makes a lengthy case for a continued need for advanced stealth platforms.
The Mitchell Institute, unsurprisingly, is funded by a large consortium of Western arms manufacturers including corporations like Lockheed Martin deeply invested in selling stealth platforms to the Pentagon, calling into question the veracity of their conclusions regarding the topic.
The National Interest article lays out the argument the institute makes for the B-21 Raider, claiming:
Given the increased threat envelope created by cutting edge air defenses, and the acknowledgement that stealth aircraft are indeed much more vulnerable than when they first emerged, Air Force developers are increasingly viewing stealth capacity as something which includes a variety of key parameters.
This includes not only stealth configuration, IR suppression and radar-evading materials but also other important elements such as electronic warfare “jamming” defenses, operating during adverse weather conditions to lower the acoustic signature and conducting attacks in tandem with other less-stealthy aircraft likely to command attention from enemy air defense systems.
The article concludes by claiming the US Air Force prefers to refer to stealth capabilities as merely “one arrow in the quiver of approaches needed to defeat modern air defenses.”
In reality, while stealth capabilities may be useful if they can be practically and economically integrated into an aircraft’s design, it is obvious even according to Western analysts that it is not worth the 700+ million US dollar price tag that comes with the B-21 Raider.
Conventional aircraft firing long-range precision standoff munitions well outside the range of enemy air defense systems and enemy aircraft are just as capable of safely carrying out strikes, perhaps more so, than stealth aircraft flying into well-defended airspaces. In fact, Western analysts seem to imply that is precisely how the B-21 Raider will be employed.
It is worth noting nations like Israel and the US who possess stealth aircraft like the F-35 or the US’ F-22, when operating in conflict zones like Syria, still prefer to carry out standoff strikes versus risking their stealth aircraft by flying into contested airspace.
Articles like Breaking Defense’s “Israel Shifts To Standoff Weapons In Syria As Russian Threats Increase,” admit that despite possessing stealth capabilities, standoff strikes are preferred to minimize the risk of expensive aircraft being detected and possibly destroyed by advanced Russian air defense systems.
If that is the case regarding F-35 and F-22 aircraft, it most likely will be the case for the B-21 Raider, even more so considering the astronomical price tag attached.
B-21 Raider, an Example of Why Outspending Doesn’t Equate to Outperforming
A November 2022 article published by the US government and arms industry-funded think tank, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) titled, “It’s Costing Peanuts for the US to Defeat Russia,” attempts to convince readers the US and its allies will ultimately prevail in their proxy conflict in Ukraine against Russia by merely by outspending Moscow.
The article claims:
How can Russia possibly hope to win an arms race when the combined GDP of the West is $40 trillion, and its defense spending amounting to 2% of GDP totals well in excess of $1 trillion when the disproportionate US defense contribution is considered?
Basic logic, however, suggests what is most important is “how” money is spent rather than “how much.”
The B-21 Raider is a perfect example of this crucial point. For the price of a single B-21 Raider Russia could build a fleet of aircraft as well as large quantities of precision-guided long-range weapons needed to launch multiple salvos against enemy targets in well-defended airspace. Conventional aircraft firing conventional munitions at standoff distances will be safe from enemy air defenses without the need for expensive stealth capabilities. And while some of the munitions fired in these salvos will inevitably be intercepted by enemy air defenses, many more will find their targets.
For wars of attrition, which seem to be the type of conflict the US faces in Ukraine and likely will face elsewhere as it shifts from targeting impoverished, poorly defended developing nations to waging proxy war on peer and near-peer competitors, quantity is proving to have a quality in and of itself.
This is a fact that has not been lost on Western analysts. A report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) titled, “Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022,” would admit:
Warfighting demands large initial stockpiles and significant slack capacity. Evidently, no country in NATO, other than the US, has sufficient initial weapons stocks for warfighting or the industrial capacity to sustain largescale operations. This must be rectified if deterrence is to be credible and is equally a problem for the RAF and Royal Navy.
Meanwhile the Financial Times in its article, “Military briefing: Ukraine war exposes ‘hard reality’ of west’s weapons capacity,” would admit:
After sending more than $40bn of military support to Ukraine, mostly from existing stocks, Nato members’ defence ministries are discovering that dormant weapons production lines cannot be switched on overnight. Increasing capacity requires investment, which in turn depends on securing long-term production contracts.
The article also claims:
There are two main reasons why western nations are struggling to source fresh military supplies, defence officials and corporate executives said. The first is structural. Since the end of the cold war, these countries have reaped a peace dividend by slashing military spending, downsizing defence industries and moving to lean, “just-in-time” production and low inventories of equipment such as munitions. That is because combating insurgents and terrorists did not require the same kind of heavy weaponry needed in high-intensity land conflicts.
The second factor is bureaucratic. Governments say they are committed to bigger defence budgets. Yet, amid so much economic uncertainty, they have been slow to write the multiyear procurement contracts that defence groups need to accelerate production.
Clearly, the B-21 Raider program does not fit into the reality emerging from the fighting in Ukraine.
In essence, despite the gargantuan sums the West has invested in defense, it has invested – admittedly – very poorly. Instead of investing in production lines and the vast quantities of weapons and munitions produced by them required to fight large-scale conflicts, the US and its allies have sunk billions if not trillions into weapons programs like the F-35 and the B-21 which do not perform their tasks any better than their much cheaper and more numerous Russian and Chinese counterparts.
Western analysts admit that even if they could convince defense contractors – who are prioritizing profits over purpose – to ramp up production and meet the requirements demanded by the US proxy war in Ukraine, it could take years to do so.
Thus, between the B-21 Raider and events unfolding in Ukraine, it is clear that Russia and China do not need to outspend the US and its allies, instead they need to simply outsmart them in terms of how they spend on defense. It is a process both Russia and China have a headstart on and also a process both enjoy structural advantages in maintaining.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.