The B-21 next-generation stealth bomber is set to be manufactured in much larger numbers than any other Western bomber aircraft in over half a century, with the U.S. Air Force alone potentially ordering over 200 of the jets and the possibility of exports to allies having repeatedly been raised. The aircraft will replace the U.S. Air Force’s B-1B and B-2 bombers in frontline service in the 2030s, with work on building prototypes having already begun and the aircraft’s first flight expect in 2022.
Although the U.S. did not export its recent generations of intercontinental range strategic bombers, the B-21 is expected to fulfil a number of roles beyond long-range nuclear delivery including potentially that of an airborne early warning aircraft to capitalise on its stealth capabilities large sensor suite to share data with fighter units, and potentially as a node for data sharing between other units which will capitalise on its artificial intelligence. The roles of a tanker for aerial refuelling, a strike aircraft using standoff cruise or ballistic missiles, and a platform for mounting laser and directed energy weapons are currently under development.
The versatility of the B-21, which is expected to be the most dangerous combat aircraft in the Western world, could make it highly attractive for export clients particularly as its maintenance requirements and operational costs are expected to be significantly lower than those of previous American bomber designs. With the aircraft expected to cost up to 75% less per unit than its predecessor the B-2 Spirit, the B-21 could be affordable to a number of countries.
The attraction of a production run and possibly even of expanded production lines, meaning greater efficiency and more funds for research and development, could incline the U.S. to market the B-21 abroad. The fact that bombers used by allied states could effectively increase the capabilities of a U.S.-led alliance against China, Russia, North Korea, Iran or any other adversary, and could effectively reduce the military burden on America itself, also provides a strong incentive to consider exporting the aircraft.
Australia has been highlighted as a likely potential client for the B-21 should the aircraft be offered for export, and has already begun preparations to accommodate the aircraft on U.S. Air Force facilities on its own territory. As Canberra’s western partners seek to support its military buildup targeting China in particular, with it serving as a Western outpost near Southeast Asia, providing it with the ability to strike targets across the region will support broader Western goals.
Australia was previously the only client for the American F-111 long-range strike fighter, which was used as a major tool of intimidation against neighbouring Indonesia due to its advanced precision strike capabilities, and a B-21 purchase could be an effective successor to this acquisition and be used to similar ends but across a much wider afield. The aircraft would complement Australia’s participation in the F-35 program as one of its largest export clients, and its reported plans to deploy F-35B jets from carrier to project power deeper into East Asia.
Threats to Australia’s northern bases and offshore airbases would be mitigated by acquiring the aircraft, which has the range needed to strike targets across most of East and Southeast Asia from bases in inland Australia without the need to rely on more vulnerable facilities. Reports that Canberra also considered acquiring nuclear weapons could further considerably improve the appeal of the B-21.
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