Will The New Air Force One Be A B-21 Stealth Bomber?

Gear
The B-21
Photo courtesy of Northrup Grumman

Back in December, Donald Trump tweeted that Boeing should “cancel” the development of a next-generation Air Force One fleet, calling the costs of the $3.2 billion program “out of control.” (In his tweet, Trump quoted the price tag at $4 billion, for reasons unknown.) Now, Aviation Week is reporting that a panel of aerospace and defense analysts has proposed a new solution: Drop the U.S. Air Force’s 747-8-based Air Force One and opt instead for either a Northrop Grumman B-21 stealth bomber, or a Boeing 737 fleet.


Since 1990, presidents and their entourage have traveled in a pair of specially modified 747s officially called Boeing VC-25s. The fleet has been used by George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump. But the VC-25s are reaching retirement age, and Defense Secretary James “I Go By Jim” Mattis has ordered a full review of the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program to find ways to cut back costs as it develops the new fleet. The $3.2 billion price tag is the projected cost of militarizing a pair of 747-8s. The 747-8 is the newest and largest version of the 747.  

The report, which was released by consulting company Wright Williams & Kelly, concluded that massive costs could best be mitigated by shifting away from the 747 airframe entirely. The two proposed alternatives offer dramatically different options; however, in both cases, the requirements for presidential transport would need to change. Currently, military-grade presidential transports must be equipped with four engines and be able to accommodate 70-plus passengers. There are currently only two airframe options that meet those requirements: The Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380, which is not made in the United States.

There’s a strong case to be made for the 737, which is smaller and cheaper and can access more runways than the 747-8. And, according to Aviation Week, the 737 has already been “adapted for military use at great expense,” while the 747-8 has not. The 737-700-based C-40 is used as a passenger aircraft by both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, and the P-8A Poseidon, also based on the 737, is used as a submarine hunter by several countries, including the United States. Further bolstering the case for the 737 is the fact that the 737 is expected to continue to be in production for decades. The 747, on the other hand, is not. However, as Popular Mechanics notes, the 737 lacks range, which is why the  Wright Williams & Kelly report suggests retaining the existing VC-25s for longer flights, or adding a tanker to the presidential fleet.

The B-21 “Raider” is the far less practical but in many ways safer alternative. Worth noting, the obvious: the B-21, which isn’t expected to enter service until the mid-2020s, is not a passenger aircraft. In fact, many people in the president’s entourage would likely be forced to sit in the bomber’s internal weapons bay and other stripped-out compartments. But the B-21 does have one major advantage over the others — it’s built for battle. The current Air Force One is equipped with state-of-the art defenses, including a top secret anti-missile system, and, according to CBS News, a blast-resistant outer skin, “rumored to withstand a nuclear blast.” Thus, in theory, less money would be required to bring the B-21 up to speed. It’s also super stealthy.

In an interview with Aviation Week, Danny Lam, spokesman for the report, invoked the growing threat of high-tech surface-to-air missiles as justification for considering the B-21 for Air Force One. Calling the 747 a “fat radar target,” he explained that the B-21 “has stealth built in,” and that “it’s nuclear-rated and heavily shielded right off the bat.” He added, “It’s going to be terribly cramped but man, it would be a survivable platform, especially if operated in twos and threes.”    

The P-8A Poseidon is a modified Boeing 737-800ERX, designed to secure the Navy's future in long-range maritime patrol capability, while transforming how the Navy's maritime patrol and reconnaissance force will man, train, operate and deploy.Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Victoria Kinney

If we’re going to attempt to predict what option the Trump administration might go with, it may help to look at what the president flew in before he became the leader of the free world. Trump’s private jet, a custom-tailored Boeing 757-200 also known as “Trump Force One,” was not a flying fortress, but rather an avatar of airborne luxury. Rumored to cost somewhere in the vicinity of $100 million, Trump Force One could carry 43 passengers and boasted 24-karat gold-plated seat belts, as well as an entertainment center with over 1,000 movie titles.

That’s a far cry from a gutted-out stealth bomber, but, hey, that was “The Donald.” President Trump? Anything is possible; although, it seems replacing the 747 with the 737 is a far more conceivable option. And unless Trump pulls a Grover Cleveland (brace yourself for a really funny history joke here) and serves two nonconsecutive terms, he’s going to be stuck riding in the VC-25 for the duration of his presidency. As Aviation Week notes, the Boeing 747-200B-based VC-25 Air Force One fleet isn’t scheduled to be replaced by the 747-8 until at least 2024. Because the project has already been in the works for more than a year now, the alternatives would likely take longer.

No motive is yet known for last week's Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard shooting tragedy, which appears to have been a random act of violence in which the sailor who fatally shot two civilian workers and himself did not know them and did not plan his actions ahead of time, shipyard commander Capt. Greg Burton said in an "All Hands" message sent out Friday.

Machinist's Mate Auxiliary Fireman Gabriel Antonio Romero of San Antonio, an armed watch-stander on the attack submarine USS Columbia, shot three civilian workers Dec. 4 and then turned a gun on himself while the sub rested in dry dock 2 for a major overhaul, the Navy said.

"The investigation continues, but there is currently no known motive and no information to indicate the sailor knew any of the victims," Burton said.

Read More Show Less
A projectile is fired during North Korea's missile tests in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on November 28, 2019. (KCNA via Reuters)

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said it had successfully conducted another test at a satellite launch site, the latest in a string of developments aimed at "restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.", state news agency KCNA reported on Saturday.

The test was conducted on Friday at the Sohae satellite launch site, KCNA said, citing a spokesman for North Korea's Academy of Defence Science, without specifying what sort of testing occurred.

Read More Show Less

Since the Washington Post first published the "Afghanistan papers," I have been reminded of a scene from "Apocalypse Now Redux" in which Army Col. Walter Kurtz reads to the soldier assigned to kill him two Time magazine articles showing how the American people had been lied to about Vietnam by both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations.

In one of the articles, a British counterinsurgency expert tells Nixon that "things felt much better and smelled much better" during his visit to Vietnam.

"How do they smell to you, soldier?" Kurtz asks.

Read More Show Less
Erik Prince arrives for the New York Young Republican Club Gala at The Yale Club of New York City in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., November 7, 2019. (REUTERS/Jeenah Moon)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Erik Prince, the controversial private security executive and prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, made a secret visit to Venezuela last month and met Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, one of socialist leader Nicolas Maduro's closest and most outspoken allies, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

Read More Show Less
Soldiers with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, walk in what could be mistaken for another planet. Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 25, 2011 (Army photo/Sgt. Ruth Pagan)

(Reuters Health) - While army suicides have historically decreased during wartime, that trend appears to have reversed in recent decades, a new study of U.S. records finds.

Researchers poring over nearly 200 years of data found that unlike earlier times when there was a decline in suicide rates among U.S. Army soldiers during and just after wars, the rate has risen significantly since 2004, according to the report in JAMA Network Open.

Read More Show Less