America’s latest nuclear stealth bomber made its debut 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 program is classified.
As night fell over the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, the public first glimpsed the Raider in a tightly controlled ceremony. It started with a flyover 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 any plane,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. “It epitomizes America’s determination to defend the republic we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s effort to modernize all three legs of its nuclear triad, including silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it shifts from the anti-terrorism campaigns of recent decades to come to China’s rapid military modernization .
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its gains in hypersonics, cyber warfare and space capabilities represent “the most consistent and systematic challenge to U.S. national security and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said this week. week in the annual China report.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to face much more complicated threats, such as those we would one day face from China and Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, the Secretary of the Air Force when the Raider contract was announced in 2015.
While the Raider resembles the B-2, the similarities end once you’re inside, said Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the bomber.
“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2 because the technology has evolved so much in terms of computing capability that we can now integrate it into the B-21’s software,” Warden said.
Other changes include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber harder to detect, Austin said.
“Fifty years of advancement in little-observable technology have gone into this plane,” said Austin. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the air.”
Other advances likely include new ways to control electronic emissions so the bomber can spoof opponent 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 hear it, but you really don’t see it.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy both nuclear weapons and 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 yacht and ship programs have spanned decades.
The cost of the bombers is not known. 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 spent. The total will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“We will be flying this aircraft soon, testing it and then putting it into production. And we will build the bomber force in numbers appropriate to the strategic environment ahead,” Austin said.
The undisclosed cost worries government watchdogs.
“It could be very challenging for us to do our normal analysis of a large program like this,” said Dan Grazier, senior defense policy officer at the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s easy to say that the B-21 is still on track before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs enters 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 supposed to be a fleet of over 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 takes its name from the 1942 Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase range, Warden said. It won’t make its maiden flight until 2023. However, Warden said Northrop Grumman used advanced computers 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 house the first bomber training program and squadron, although the bombers are also expected to be stationed at bases in Texas and Missouri.
Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, led the state’s effort to organize the bomber program. In a statement, he called it “the most advanced weapon system ever developed by our country to defend ourselves and our allies.”
Northrop Grumman also took lessons from B-2 maintenance, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew for 44 hours straight to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. The B-2 often performs long round-trip flights because there are few hangars worldwide that can accommodate its wingspan, which limits where it can land for servicing. The hangars must also be air-conditioned, as the Spirit’s windows do not open and in hot climates, the electronics in the cockpit can boil.
The new Raider will also get new hangars to accommodate its size and complexity, Warden said.
But with the Raider’s extended range, “it doesn’t have to be in the theater,” Austin said. “It doesn’t need logistical support to keep a target in danger.”
A last 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 visible, keeping its sensitive propulsion systems and sensors below the hangar and shielded from overhead glances.
“The magic of the platform,” Director said, “is what you don’t see.”