- The Secretary of the Air Force recently stated that the B-21 Raider could become a “quarterback” for unmanned planes.
- Drone mothership is just one mission the B-21 could take on as the service assesses what capabilities it will need for big-power warfare.
- Almost every warplane has multiple roles, a situation that makes them more useful in combat, but also makes them more financially viable in peacetime.
The new B-21 Raider could do more than just drop bombs—it could become a mothership for drones, guiding them on complex missions through enemy territory.
That’s according to Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, who made the comment in a recent interview with Bloomberg. Kendall warns that the crush of multiple Air Force programs means that funding is an issue. “If the service depends on planned purchases of advanced piloted aircraft, we are not going to be able to afford the Air Force—we’ll not be able to have the force structure that we need.”
Acting as a new, manned platform that can slip in and out of enemy territory undetected could justify the B-21 Raider’s price-tag and a larger fleet; the move could solidify the bomber as a multi-role aircraft in much the same way as the F-35. Not to mention, the service is eager to sign the bomber up for new ways to give adversaries a collective headache.
How will the B-21’s drone-mothership role play out? Kendall seems to reject the idea of aircraft-launched drones, preferring drones that can take off from ground bases, link up in the air with manned aircraft, and work together in a manned-unmanned team. Aircraft-launched drones take up precious internal space in an aircraft, especially stealthy aircraft that are unable to carry weapons from wing- and fuselage-mounted pylons. A drone that takes off and lands on its own would allow manned aircraft to carry their own munitions, increasing the team’s overall firepower.
Bloomberg described one possible mission for the B-21, which is scheduled to fly next year, as a “quarterback role directing pilotless systems.” While a single B-21 acting as a bomber could attack several targets individually, the same B-21 acting as a mothership could control multiple drones attacking several targets over a wide area simultaneously, overwhelming an adversary’s ability to counter them.
The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 new stealth bombers and has made noise that it would really like up to 220. The B-21 will replace the B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit bombers in the conventional and nuclear bomber missions.
But if the Air Force wants more money for bombers, it will need to provide more justification for them; that will come in the form of new missions. One possibility is for the B-21 to act as a stealthy minelayer, swooping in to drop sea mines at the start of a conflict. Quickstrike is a strap-on kit for 500, 1,000, and 2,000-pound aircraft bombs, fitting them with glide fins and a GPS guidance system. Upon release at 35,000 feet, a Quickstrike ER naval mine can glide for up to 40 miles, splashing down into the ocean and then waiting for enemy ships to pass by.
As a stealthy minelayer, a B-21 Raider could go where other planes can’t, laying down minefields far closer to enemy territory in order to bottle up enemy naval forces. A minefield could close enemy ports and harbors, force enemy ships to sail closer to home, or even close off one sailing route and force an adversary’s warships into a well-prepared ambush. In the early hours of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for instance, B-21 Raiders could fly under the noses of Chinese S-400 air defense systems and sow the Taiwan Strait with Quickstrike mines, creating a major hazard for troop ships undertaking the already risky crossing.
The push to assign new roles to the B-21 is just part of a larger trend among the flying services to make the most of existing airframes. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can function as both a fighter and attack jet during the same mission. The Air Force is testing the ability to convert transport planes into ad hoc missile carriers, airdropping pallets of cruise missiles. Under a program known as Harvest Hawk, the Marine Corps modified the KC-130J Hercules aerial refueling tanker with an electro-optical targeting pod and the ability to launch air-to-ground missiles.
Multi-role aircraft are more useful in general, and a more efficient use of aircraft is something Congress likes to see. If the Air Force can make a convincing case that the B-21 can adapt to more roles, its hopes of seeing more of the bombers might be fulfilled.
Bomber, mothership, and minelayer are just a handful of new missions the Air Force could adopt for the B-21. Its ability to fly near—and even into—enemy territory and emerge undetected will make for an essential asset in any future conflict. If the day comes when that happens, Raider bombers could be doing more than just dropping bombs.