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Last surviving Doolittle Raider rises to name Northrop B-21

Just after the US Air Force officially revealed the moniker for the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber, now known as the Raider, the service’s head of Global Strike Command expressed his support for at least 100 next-generation bombers.

The USAF has yet to set the official quantity for the B-21 fleet, but Gen. Robin Rand reiterated his support for 100 aircraft during the annual Air Force Association conference Monday. Based on ongoing operations and threats the service sees 15 years ahead, Rand does not foresee dipping below the USAF’s current level of 158 bombers, including B-52s, B-1s and B-2s.

“I’m gonna stick to my guns though, 100 is the minimum for the B-21,” he says.

The B-21 is one of the USAF's top three acquisition priorities - along with the Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter and Boeing KC-46 tanker – but it's not clear the USAF will have enough procurement funding after Fiscal 2021 to support all three as the bomber programme is expected to enter the low-rate initial production phase, says Jim McAleese, founder of a consulting firm.

Meanwhile, the USAF is walking a tight line to create support for the secretive bomber programme, encouraging dramatic gestures but refusing to disclose even the value of the development contract. The USAF's theatrics were on full display during the Air Force Association's annual convention on 19 September. To name the new bomber, the USAF summoned retired Lt Col Dick Cole, the last surviving member of the famed "Doolittle Raid" in 1942. By pronouncing the B-21 as the Raider, Cole stamped the imprimatur of one of the USAF's proudest moments on a bomber likely to be on duty a century beyond Col Jimmy Doolittle's surprise attack on Tokyo.

Earlier this summer, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration told reporters the USAF would determine the number of bombers needed for the fleet after the first aircraft is fielded in the 2020s.

While the director of the Air Force’s rapid capabilities office says the bomber could be unmanned in the future, Rand maintained the service is not planning any unmanned designs today. The bomber will part be part of a “family of systems” that will include unmanned aircraft supporting Raider, but Rand’s own preference is to keep the Raider manned because of its nuclear mission.

“It could be optionally manned, but that’s not the discussions we’re having now,” he says. “Right now when Northrop builds that first airplane it’s going to be manned.”

Still, Rand did not appear to rule out the prospect an unmanned Raider, just that the air force is not designing the aircraft to be unmanned.

“We fly drones unmanned so the capability would be there but that’s not on my radar screen,” he says. “Down the road there’s going to be other discussions.”

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