The Federal Government has surprisingly ruled out buying the B-21 Raider in its much-anticipated Defence Strategic Review.
Instead, the RAAF will invest in next-generation, long-range missiles that will be fired by Australia’s fleet of 72 F-35s and 24 Super Hornets.
The DSR has been described as the biggest shake-up in Australia’s defence policy in decades and will result in $19 billion being spent to implement its immediate recommendations.
“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,” said the report.
“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.”
Unveiled in December last year, the B-21 Raider is the ‘sequel’ to the UFO-like B-2 Spirit and is designed to silently strike deep behind enemy lines with its 9,500 km range and advanced stealth capabilities.
Manufacturer Northrop Grumman said the world had “never seen technology” like it had developed for the bomber, while US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added it was so advanced that even the most sophisticated air defence systems wouldn’t be able to detect it.
In place of its purchase, Australia will invest in Raytheon’s Joint Strike Missile (JSM) alongside Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM).
JSMs are designed to be fired from fifth-generation F-35s and are significantly able to change course in flight. They differ from more regular missiles because they can fly at low altitudes where they can evade radars.
Raytheon says the JSM, which has a range of 275km, is the only fifth-generation cruise missile designed to be launched from the internal weapons bay of the F-35A.
Lockheed’s LRASMs, meanwhile, with its range of 560km, use “semi-autonomous guidance and target cueing data” to locate and destroy targets. Unlike the shorter-range JSMs, they can be fired by both F-35s and Super Hornets.
The news that Australia will favour missiles over long-range aircraft comes despite Defence Minister Richard Marles previously saying that purchasing the B-21 was “being examined” and US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall suggesting his country would be “willing to talk” about a deal.
Think tank ASPI (The Australian Strategic Policy Institute) had estimated though that acquiring a fleet of 12 B-21s would cost Australia up to $28 billion.
More generally, the DSR, penned by former defence minister Stephen Smith and former defence chief Sir Angus Houston, concluded Australia’s geographical advantage as an island was being reduced by advances in military technology.
“In the contemporary strategic era, we cannot rely on geography or warning time … more countries are able to project combat power across greater ranges in all five domains: maritime, land, air, space and cyber,” it said.
The F-35 is Australia’s newest fighter, purchased to replace the RAAF’s Classic Hornets that were in service since 1985 and retired in late 2021.
Over the coming years, Australia will buy 72 as part of the $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program, with all expected to be fully operational by the end of this year.
The aircraft comes in three variants: the F-35A — purchased by Australia — is a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version; the F-35B is a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, and the final F-35C is the carrier type (CV). At the time of writing, 59 have landed on Australian soil.