The United States‘ newest nuclear stealth bomber made its debut on Friday after years of secret development and as part of the Pentagon’s response to growing concerns about a future conflict with China.
The B-21 Raider is the first new American bomber aircraft in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the show is classified.
As evening fell over Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, the public got their first look at the Raider in a tightly controlled ceremony. It began with a flyby of the three bombers still in service: the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer, and the B-2 Spirit. The hangar doors were then slowly opened and the B-21 was partially towed out of the building.
“This is not just another plane,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. “He is the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s efforts to modernize all three legs of its nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it moves from the counterterrorism campaigns of the past decades to confronting the China’s rapid military modernization. .
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its achievements in hypersonics, cyber warfare and space capabilities present “the most significant systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system,” said the Pentagon this week in its annual report on China.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to deal with much more complicated threats, like the threats that we fear one day facing from China, Russia,” Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force, said when the Raider contract was announced. in 2015.
While the Raider may resemble the B-2, once you get inside, the similarities disappear, said Kathy Warden, chief executive of Northrop Grumman Corp., which is building the bomber.
“The way it operates internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of computing power that we can now integrate into the B-21 software,” Warden said.
Other changes include advanced materials used in skins to make the bomber harder to spot, Austin said.
“Fifty years of advances in low-observability technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will have a hard time spotting a B-21 in the sky.”
Other advances likely include new ways to control electronic emissions so the bomber could spoof adversary radars and disguise itself as another object, and the use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
“It’s incredibly low observability,” Warden said. “You’ll hear it, but you won’t actually see it.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and can be used with or without a human crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the Raider’s relatively rapid development: the bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have taken decades.
The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force previously set the price at an average cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars, roughly $753 million today, but it’s unclear how much is actually spent. The total will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“Soon we will fly this aircraft, test it and then put it into production. And we will build the bomber force in numbers appropriate for the strategic environment ahead,” Austin said.
The undisclosed cost worries government watchdogs.
“It could be quite challenging for us to do our normal analysis of a major program like this,” said Dan Grazier, senior fellow for defense policy at the Government Oversight Project. “It’s easy to say that the B-21 is still programmed before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs goes into the actual testing phase that the real problems are discovered.” That’s, he said, is when schedules start to slip and costs go up.
The B-2 was also envisioned as a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force built only 21, due to cost overruns and a change in the security environment after the fall of the Soviet Union. Less than that are ready to fly on any given day due to the significant maintenance needs of the aging bomber.
The B-21 Raider, named after the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Warden said. It won’t make its first flight until 2023. However, Warden said Northrop Grumman has used advanced computing to test the bomber’s performance using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one unveiled Friday.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota will host the first bomber training program and squadron, though the bombers are also expected to be stationed at bases in Texas and Missouri.
US Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, led the state’s bid to host the bomber program. In a statement, he called it “the most advanced weapons system ever developed by our country to defend ourselves and our allies.”
Northrop Grumman has also incorporated maintenance lessons learned from the B-2, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew 44 hours straight to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. The B-2 often makes long round-trip missions because there are few hangars around the world that can accommodate its wingspan, limiting where it can land for maintenance. The hangars must also be air conditioned because the Spirit’s windows do not open and hot climates can cook the electronics in the cabin.
The new Raider will also get new hangars to accommodate its size and complexity, Warden said.
However, with the extended range of the Raider, “it won’t need to be theater based,” Austin said. “You won’t need logistical support to keep any targets at risk.”
One last notable difference was in the debut itself. While both were made public in Palmdale, the B-2 was shot outdoors in 1988 amid much public fanfare. Given advances in cameras and surveillance satellites, the Raider was left partially exposed, keeping its sensitive sensors and propulsion systems below the hangar and shielded from overhead eyes.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”