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Comment: Why Australia needs the B-21 Raider

written by Liam Garman | July 13, 2021

The B21 is expected to be the world’s most advanced, cost-effective long-range strike capability. Australia must make the case to our US allies to procure B21s and to house one of the world’s most fearsome deterrents right in our airbases.

On the character of modern conflict, ADFA’s Professor David Kilcullen often cites former CIA director James Woolsey’s description of the post-Soviet era’s geopolitical arena. “We have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of,” Woolsey said at his confirmation hearing. Indeed, Professor Kilcullen resonated with the notion so much so that it formed the basis of his recent book, The Dragons and The Snakes.

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The metaphor is easy enough to understand. In conflict, it is sometimes simpler to deal with the behemoth. You understand their motives, of which they may be centrally crafted and of one mind. Further, they may be confined to a geographical region or even perhaps bounded by ideological constraints.

On the other hand, the post-Soviet era (or as Professor Kilcullen describes, the post-Woolseyan era) describes the West as surrounded by poisonous snakes who can cause lethal damage but remain undetected. In recent years, these snakes have grown their warfighting capabilities and can even challenge the dragons. Look no further than state sanctioned hacking groups in North Korea and Russia that have been able to penetrate deep into some of the West’s most secure telecommunications networks.

Australia is by no means a snake. We are a liberal, democratic and rules-based nation. But the lesson from Woolsey’s metaphor is clear: small, independent and disparate groups have been able to onboard capabilities that counterbalance global superpowers and thus ensure their continued survival. Australia is no different, and must find the next great technological leap to ensure that Australia’s sovereignty is protected and to deter any malicious state or non-state actors from interfering in our day-to-day lives.

Australia needs the B21.

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The B21 will be a strategic gamechanger for Australia. While some sources suggest that the B21 will be able to travel anywhere on the world, even the more measured analysts such as ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer suggest that the B21 would provide huge capability improvements on the West’s current fleet.

“It’s using two F-35 engines, for example, but it will have three or four times the range of the F-35. That will allow it to reach far out into the Indo-Pacific, greatly complicating the planning of any adversary operating against us or our friends. It also means it can be based deep inside Australia, far from threats, and still not need to rely on tanker support,” Hellyer wrote in ASPI’s The Strategist.

Hellyer raises an interesting point. The increased range of the B21 allows the RAAF to tuck the aircraft safely away in Australia’s interior, further from the strike capacity of any potential enemies.

Unfortunately for Australia, we need the US to approve the sale of the technology to the RAAF which is by no means guaranteed. This is why our key decision makers in Canberra as well as our advocates in Washington DC must continuously reiterate the maxim of burden sharing. Financial and military parameters don’t necessarily favour a US military that houses troops and hardware on every continent. It is beneficial, both to Australia and the US, for Australia to strengthen its military to take the burden off of the US.

The B21 will allow Australia to expand its umbrella of deterrence over the Indo-Pacific, safely encompassing many of Australia’s key regional allies under a Pax Australis and allowing the US to focus on more pertinent issues to its security. Amazingly for the US, it will not only allow more strategic allocation of troops – but hallelujah, Australia will also pick up the tab of our native B21 program. This will support Australia and America’s regional security.

It is expected that the first B21 will be completed in early 2022 and shortly after undertake its first test flight. If all is successful during this phase, the B21s will likely be rolled out to the US Air Force in the mid-to-late 2020s. As such, the B21’s long-range strike deterrent will provide an impactful and complementary long range strike capability until the rollout of the attack-class submarinesJust imagine the deterrent effect that both the B21 and the Attack Class submarines would have on a would-be conventional adversary.

Interestingly, the price of the B21s aren’t even particularly prohibitive. “A squadron of 12 aircraft will likely total around $20–25 billion once we add in bases, support systems such as simulators and maintenance facilities, and so on. That’s a lot, but compared to the $45 billion to be spent on future frigates, the $89 billion on submarines or indeed the $30 billion on armoured vehicles, it’s a price worth considering,” ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer wrote in The Strategist.

In Professor Kilcullen’s analysis of Woolsey’s dragons and snakes, he noted that many snakes are becoming threats to superpowers due to the ability to onboard critical technology. Indeed, Australia is not a snake – but what it can learn from the snakes is that size doesn’t matter, and that Australia could have a lethal venom that can keep enemies at bay.

Liam Garman is the deputy editor of Defence Connect, and a contributor to Australian Aviation. 

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13 Comments

  • Passerby

    says:

    Australian priorities should have been slightly different right now. At present we are fighting de-facto a “biological war” and we are losing it badly !!! No amount of airplanes or tanks can change it. What would happen when we face a cyber or a real biological conflict ? As the history of wars tells us the future incoming combat would look totally different.

  • If ever have the opportunity to regain some advantage almost like the days of the F111 it is now. Secured in the Australian interior. Capable of reaching out and touching adversarial states in a manner that would make them think more than twice. See how I never mentioned China!

  • Ratchit

    says:

    What a load of schoolboy nonsense. No way Australia can afford a platform like this or the easily targeted infrastructure.

  • Robo

    says:

    If you balance the time frame and cost, it actually becomes pretty reasonable value. Perhaps the more “interesting” question, centres on the types of weaponary we’d need such a system to deliver if need be. Little doubt the RAAF has felt a bit naked since the F111 passed the point of true reliability and subsequent retirement. The RAIDER is what they’ve been waiting for.

  • Aussie

    says:

    It’s about time this country got a bomber off its standing. It would increase the capability of its airforce to protect our country, the b21 is a great aircraft and would tick all the boxes and more. Australia and new Zealand have fought along side of the Americans since the thirty and forty, we may not agree on everything they do, but they are always there for us.

  • Ulick Gage

    says:

    Who are the snakes and who are the dragons? Is China a snake or a dragon? I rather think the latter. How far could a B 21 reach into that behemoth? From Australia, I think it would barely touch the surface. Or are we thinking of the old colonial gunboat policy, where a B 21 could knock out several snakes in one go? Trouble is, the snakes are all on our side now…

  • M Coote

    says:

    Guys, this is verging on being Fantasy level stuff and i think your $20-25b for a squadron of 12 is way to low, probably looking at $800m-$1b AUD per Aircraft so looking at around $10-12b AUD for the Aircraft only. Which is generally about 1/3 the overall cost to get a new capability to FOC, so looking more at between $30-40b.
    That $30-40b would have to be found over a period of about 5-7 years, compare that to the Submarines $80 over about 35 Years and the Frigates $35b over about 25years.
    I would have real doubts about getting any sale past DSCA, the main reason being is it may change the balance of power in our region.

  • Bill Whitehead

    says:

    Strategically Australia dropped the ball when we retired the F111, this has left us without any heavy bomber capabilities. While we could theoretically load up a heap of bombs in the back of a C130 or C17 it is still a poor choice for a strategic deterrent. Yet there is another option which is to make the argument for the US to move its bombers from Guam to a purpose built Australian base deep inside our boarders this would save on airframe costs and the reluctance of the US to allow outright purchase or consider asking the US to give us surplus B1B, B2 and B52 platforms based permently in Australia.

  • Dan C

    says:

    What an awful, amateurish assessment. The author is arguing that with the proliferation of non-state actors the answer should be a platform designed to strike strategic targets? So if some domestic terrorist cell attacks a shopping centre one day we’ll use the B-21 to do what exactly? Fling an LGB at their garages in some suburb? Absolutely ridiculous. And the concept of “deterrence” does not exist for these kind of actors.

    The money would be far better spent on intelligence agencies, special forces and tactical training for regular police – you know, things which WILL protect Australia from the poisonous [sic] snakes.

    • Rocket

      says:

      What a ridiculous assessment.

      The ‘terrorism’ bogey.

      You mean the one that has resulted in not even 10 deaths in the last 20 years on Australian soil but for which there are 67 separate pieces of invasive legislation.

      An average of one woman per month dies at the hands of her domestic/intimate partner and how many pieces of legislation do we have for that?? None. Except existing laws, just rhetoric while accused rapists are allowed to serve in the government.

      All of this and the domestic ‘terrorism’ angle is nothing to do with defense deterrents, drop some of the over-complicated and overpriced F35s, the ‘poor mans F-22’ and spend the money on the B21s and while we’re at it, just buy 12 Los Angeles Class Attack Subs off the lot and stop trying to denuclearise a sub-standard French submarine.

  • Tom Gray

    says:

    As an american I have no problem with Australia getting the B-21. You are one of our closest allies and always hang tuff.

  • Robo

    says:

    Given ongoing regional tensions with China and now, with what appears to be a somewhat “lost and confused USA”, after the Afghanistan withdrawal nightmare, and suddenly the Raider purchase looks a lot more solid! Like NATO, we need to be considering more our own capabilities over the medium to long-term….Uncle Sam may indeed not be as present around the world in the years to come!

  • Robo

    says:

    Well, hello AUUKUS! Given recent news and the scale of it, all things really do now become possible. I suspect some big grins at the RAFF these days, as they look toward the later years of this decade!

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