America’s 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 in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is classified.
As night fell over the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, the public got its first glimpse of the Raider in a tightly controlled ceremony. It began with a bridging of the three bombers still in service: the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit. Then the hangar doors slowly opened and the B-21 was partially towed out of the building.
“This is not just another plane,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. “It 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 shifts from the counterterrorism campaigns of recent decades to China’s rapid military modernization to meet .
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its gains in hypersonics, cyber warfare and space capabilities present “the most consequential and systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said this week. its annual China report.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to take on much more complex threats, like the threats we fear we will face one day from China, Russia,” Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary said. Raider contract was announced in 2015.
While the Raider may look like the B-2, the similarities stop once you’re inside, said Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds 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 the computing capability that we can now incorporate into the software of the B-21,” Warden said.
Other changes include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber more difficult to track, Austin said.
“Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems would struggle to detect a B-21 in the air.”
Other advances are likely to include new ways to control electronic emissions, allowing the bomber to fool 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 really won’t see it.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy either 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 took decades.
The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force previously put the price at an average cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars — about $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much is actually being spent. The total will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“We will soon 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 unknown cost worries government watchdogs.
“It can be very challenging for us to do our normal analysis of a large program like this,” said Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s easy to say that the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs goes into the actual testing phase that real problems are discovered.” That, he said, is when schedules start to slip and costs rise.
The B-2 was also envisioned to be a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force built only 21, due to cost overruns and a changed security environment after the fall of the Soviet Union. Fewer than that are ready to fly on any given day due to the significant maintenance needs of the aging bomber.
The B-21 Raider, which gets its name from the 1942 Doolittle Raid over 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 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 bomber’s first training program and squadron, although the bombers are also expected to be stationed at bases in Texas and Missouri.
Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, 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 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 September 11 attacks. The B-2 often makes long round trips because there are few hangars worldwide 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 cabin electronics.
The new Raider will also get new hangars to accommodate its size and complexity, Warden said.
However, with the Raider’s extended range, it won’t need to be theater-based,” Austin said. “It won’t need logistical support to keep any target at risk.”
A final noticeable difference was in the debut itself. While both went public in Palmdale, the B-2 was rolled out in 1988 amid much public fanfare. Given advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider was only partially exposed, keeping its sensitive propulsion systems and sensors under the hangar and shielded from overhead eyes.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”