In the desert beyond the San Gabriel Mountains north of LA sits a vast air base with the unassuming name of Plant 42. It houses “black box” weapons projects by three of the Pentagon’s Big Five prime contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. In a Hollywood-esque extravaganza last week, Northrop gave us a peek inside the box. Following soaring orchestral music and flyovers by previous bombers, the prototype B-21 Raider emerged from a haze of blue light and fog.

What followed, for substance amid this display of style, were assurances that while this model looked remarkably similar to the previous one — the B-2 — this model is wholly new and improved. The same promises, though, were made on that same spot where in 1988, Northrop unveiled the B-2. But, unfortunately, they didn’t pan out. After a litany of problems, like a stealth coating that deteriorated in the rain, and costs that climbed to $2.2 billion a copy for a total of 20 planes, the Department of Defense gave up building B-2s.

The new bomber’s main promised improvement is an “open system architecture” that will allow Northrop to load up the plane with features, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “that haven’t even been created yet.” Its assigned missions will include dropping both nuclear and conventional bombs, as well as surveillance and coordinating other aircraft in battle.

This all-things-to-all-people, “we’ll figure this out as we go along” approach should remind us of the most expensive weapons system ever built: the F-35 fighter jet. It’s also supposed to be able to drop nuclear bombs, but it has several problems. Records show decades of discovered defects and soaring costs.   

Miriam Pemberton is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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