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Opinion: Why didn’t we opt for B-21s?

written by Stephen Kuper | May 8, 2023

With the government continuing to emphasise long-range strike as its preferred method of implementing its doctrine of “impactful projection”, why has the Air Force missed out on a quantum leap in capability in the shape of the B-21 Raider?

The Defence Strategic Review (DSR) has been met with mixed responses across the Australian defence industrial base and the strategic policy community. With responses ranging from bewilderment to outright anger and frustration at the fundamental reshaping of the nation’s defence capabilities.

While much of the emphasis has been placed on the government’s restructuring and reorientation of the Army, shifting away from close, combined arms combat supported by heavy ground combat vehicles and comparatively short-range gun batteries towards a long-range, precision fires emphasis underpinned by platforms like the HIMARS and long-range strike missiles, respectively.

At the core of this reorientation is the government’s shift towards “impactful projection”, as defined by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles. This approach will not only reshape the Australian Defence Force for the first time since the Dibb Review and Defence of Australia White Paper, but also the nation’s strategic approach to the increasingly fluid and contested power dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.


Marles explains this impact as, “I think increasingly, we’re going to need to think about our defence force in terms of being able to provide the country with impactful projection, impactful projection, meaning an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response. Now, that is actually a different mindset to what we’ve probably had before.”

However, the traditional frontline of the nation’s long-range strike capability, the Royal Australian Air Force, has been left largely high and dry, at a time when the government is seeking to maximise the strategic impact Australia has across the broadly redefined Indo-Pacific.

For the Air Force, the government’s review articulates that: “The Royal Australian Air Force must be optimised to fight all aspects of air warfare. The support of maritime, littoral, and sustainment operations form Australia’s northern base network will be a high priority.”

This approach seemingly emphasises a “business as usual” approach to the nation’s execution and delivery of air power in the contemporary context, with little in the way of new or expanded acquisitions to markedly increase Australia’s air combat or air lift capabilities, beyond what has been announced.

While the government’s review states a well-known fact that, “F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft must be able to operate the long-range anti-ship missile”, this doesn’t shift the dial in terms of the strategic, long-range strike capabilities. In doing so, it fails to identify and articulate a credible role in a long-range strike order of battle that needs to be defined in order to ensure that the Air Force can successfully fulfil the core missions government has articulated.

Enter the longstanding debate about Australia’s acquisition of the B-21 Raider, the successor to the venerable B-2 Spirit and the cutting edge of America’s airborne strategic deterrence capabilities.

If not now, then when? 

Repeated rhetoric from the government has sort to emphasise the historic importance of the Defence Strategic Review and its broader implications for the shape and role of the Australian Defence Force.

It is equally no secret that the basis for the DSR and the proposed strategic realignment is based on two key factors, the increasing assertiveness of China, coupled with its unprecedented military build-up and militarisation of the South China Sea, combined with increasing concerns about not only the reliability of the United States, but also the capacity of the nation’s major strategic benefactor to actively maintain the regional and global order.

Yet despite these circumstances, by far, the biggest elephant in the room is the decision to not replace the long-range strike capability of the venerable F-111, with the government categorically ruling out an Australian acquisition of the B-21 Raider.

The government’s review stated, “The review has undertaken detailed discussions in Australia and the United States in relation to the B-21 Raider as a potential capability option for Australia.

“In light of our strategic circumstances and the approach to Defence strategy and capability development outlined in this review, we do not consider the B-21 to be a suitable option for consideration for acquisition,” the review stated.

The question now becomes, why not? If the circumstances are as dire as we are being told and Australia will be required to play an increasing role in the region, both in support of coalition operations and independently, doesn’t it make sense for Australia to have such a capability, even in small numbers?

Budgetary issues aside, they have already been well established, particularly in light of the decades-long SSN-AUKUS program, there are distinct missions that an aircraft like the Raider can perform, that an SSN, no matter how advanced, can’t perform.

If it is a case of delivery times, that is far more understandable, given the US will prioritise the recapitalisation of its own airborne, long-range strike capabilities over that of its allies, however, getting involved now means we can take advantage of an economy of scale and provide the same benefits for the United States.

This approach only makes more sense when you include the United Kingdom as a central AUKUS partner, while also aggregating capability, easing the burden on the United States and enabling allies like Australia and the United Kingdom to take more direct hands in managing and maintaining the varying security challenges they face without relying on overwhelming US support.

It is all about a ‘focused force’

The DSR is clear in articulating a major shift away from the Defence of Australia-era force posture and structure which emphasised a “balanced force” which the DSR states as: “The current Australian Defence Force (ADF) force structure is based on a ‘balanced force’ model that reflects a bygone era. It does not adequately address our new strategic environment.”

Rather, in the face of the mounting regional challenges and the challenges posed by the potential for great power conflict, “The ADF needs a much more focused force that can respond to the risks we face. It should be informed by net assessment and able to effect a strategy of denial.”

Building on this central point, the DSR states, “To maximise the deterrence, denial and response options for the government, the ADF must evolve into a genuine Integrated Force which harnesses effects across all five domains: maritime, land, air, space and cyber.”

Expanding on these points further, the DSR seeks to more clearly articulate the make-up of the integrated force and the role it will play, however, it also reinforces the question about the government’s categorical refusal to pursue the B-21 capability.

“The ADF’s operational success will depend on the ability of the Integrated Force to apply the following critical capabilities:

  •  undersea warfare capabilities (crewed and uncrewed) optimised for persistent, long-range sub-surface intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike;
  •  an enhanced integrated targeting capability;
  •  an enhanced long-range strike capability in all domains;
  •  a fully enabled, integrated amphibious-capable combined-arms land system;
  •  enhanced, all-domain, maritime capabilities for sea denial operations and localised sea control;
  •  a networked expeditionary air operations capability;
  •  an enhanced, all-domain, integrated air and missile defence capability;
  •  a joint, expeditionary theatre logistics system with strategic depth and mobility;
  •  a theatre command and control framework that enables an enhanced Integrated Force; and
  •  a developed network of northern bases to provide a platform for logistics support, denial and deterrence.”

Interestingly, none of these “key pillars” explicitly precludes the B-21 from Australia’s proposed “integrated force”, rather a number of them in particular only strengthen the arguments for an Australian acquisition — namely, these key points:

  • an enhanced long-range strike capability in all domains;
  • a joint, expeditionary theatre logistics system with strategic depth and mobility;
  • enhanced, all-domain, maritime capabilities for sea denial operations and localised sea control; and
  • a networked expeditionary air operations capability.

Final thoughts

While Beijing has undoubtedly been the principle focus and driving force for Australia’s Defence Strategic Review and the nation’s pursuit of increasing self-reliance and strategic capacity to “deliver combat power through impactful materiel and enhanced strike capacity — including over longer distances”.

This point becomes more important as the post-Second World War order and balance of power shifts away from a US-led and dominated, monopolar world, towards an increasingly multipolar world, driven by the domestic and international ambitions, anxieties, and interests of these rising powers.

I will go one further to this, how should Australia plan for a world that is no longer as benevolent as we have been used to for the past 80 years? Simply put, how will emerging powers like Indonesia, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and others treat Australia and our concerns when their respective economic, political, and strategic clout simply overshadows our own and the relative regional power of our primary strategic benefactor?

In the face of a rapidly evolving global and regional paradigm, Australia’s strategic capabilities will need to be more diverse, putting all our eggs in the single basket, in this instance, the nuclear-powered submarines, and we certainly shouldn’t be making such categorical statements, without leaving the door open for further consideration, particularly when we have failed to provide any additional material transformation or capability to the ADF.

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Comments (3)

  • David Savage


    If Australia is not going use B-21 or similar long range defence, how do they propose to provide this capacity to cover; especially if other AUKUS MEMBERS will ask for it given our position within the Asia- Pacific region? It is our back yard and it needs to be protected.

    Surely AUKUS must have a policy to evenly distribute the cover with an agreement on common armament, especially long range air even if only as a deterrent. Maybe the USA can or will agree to provide the hardware.

    Unlike the USA and the UK, Australia doesn’t have 3500 miles of pacific ocean or land mass to provide time to react and respond. What AUKUS has yet to d4cide and provide the common armament and an agreed a
    cost sharing. After all. If there is to be a conflict, keep it as far away from our borders as possible. B-21 and rocketry gives us a chance of that.

    It all depends on sharing. Equipment, ground depots and harbours and advanced equipped manpower. If that is being planned, we can rest a bit better.

    In closing, if the smaller A-PAC countries are hit first, there will be a call for Australia who must join the party

  • Roy Hughes


    There are sure to be some B-1’s/B-2’s soon available soon (albeit with a few hours on the clock) and at the right price! [Maybe even a discount as a member of the AUKUS alliance] A not-insignificant upgrade, and they might be fit for purpose, however strategic bombers are VERY costly to operate, and require a large uniformed workforce to maintain. They would also require more AEWC support, refuellers, munitions, training, expanded airbases and runways, as well as logistical support.

    It all adds up to a large cost, but then the cost to not have the capability to defend ourselves may be even larger!


    • Too expensive and we don’t want to be the only country operating an aircraft type ever again.

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