WASHINGTON — The coming year will see the U.S. Air Force’s most anticipated new aircraft rollout in recent memory as the service debuts its next stealth bomber.
But 2022 will also bring what are expected to be tough choices and retirements as part of the upcoming budget proposal for the following fiscal year.
The B-21 Raider will be rolled out to the public in 2022, though there is no concrete date. Several months afterward, the Raider will make its first test flight.
“We’ll do something special as we bring out the B-21,” such as a ceremony for the unveiling or the follow-on first flight, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said in September during Defense One’s online State of Defense conference.
This will be the first public unveiling of a new Air Force bomber in more than three decades, since Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit bomber was revealed to the public at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, in November 1988. The B-2′s first public flight took place the following year, in July 1989.
But Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on Dec. 9 suggested the Air Force may continue to play its cards on the Raider close to the vest, even into 2022.
“You’re not going to get to see much of it,” Kendall said during an online Defense One panel. “We don’t want to give our enemies a head start on any of this. We’re going to acknowledge that we’re doing this, let the public be aware, let the Congress be aware of it. But we’re not going to say a lot more about what we’re doing in the public.”
Kendall said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in September that five B-21s were in various stages of production at Plant 42.
Todd Harrison, an aerospace and defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expects the Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget request — coming early next year — to also yield more details on the B-21. Harrison said Dec. 10 that could include more information on the service’s procurement plan as well as hints on how quickly the aircraft could be fielded.
“2022 is going to be a big year for the B-21,” Harrison said.
But the 2023 budget request could also include some difficult trade-offs for the Air Force as it seeks to retire more aging aircraft to free up resources. The upcoming budget is expected to be a tight one, leaving little room for the service to modernize as quickly as needed. Kendall and other Air Force leaders have recently increased their calls for Congress to allow the service to retire aging aircraft they say won’t be of much use in a high-end fight against a foe like China.
And with the lessons the Air Force garnered from a series of force-planning exercises under its belt, the upcoming budget submission could include more sweeping changes to force structure than previous budget requests.
“As we look at [FY]23, this is where I’m really focused,” Brown told Defense News in a November 2020 interview.
The Air Force’s effort to acquire an aerial refueling tanker to bridge the gap between the KC-46A Pegasus and the next-generation tanker could gather steam next year as well. The Air Force in June released a sources-sought solicitation for the KC-Y, or bridge tanker, program.
Three months later, Lockheed Martin revealed its LMXT aerial refueling tanker — a modified version of the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport plane — that will compete against the KC-46 to produce up to 160 bridge tankers.
In an interview with Defense News on Dec. 4, Brown said the timing of the competition for the bridge tanker is still to be determined, but that the process had started.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.