On Friday, Northrop Grumman officially unveiled the B-21 Raider in front of a small group of spectators, offering the world its first glimpse of America’s new stealth bomber. The B-21 is the first new bomber the United States has fielded in a quarter century — since the Raider’s predecessor, the B-2 Spirit entered service in 1997.
“The B-21 Raider is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation. And it’s proof of the Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future. Now, strengthening and sustaining U.S. deterrence is at the heart of our National Defense Strategy,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
“This bomber was built on a foundation of strong, bipartisan support in Congress. And because of that support, we will soon fly this aircraft, test it and then move into production.”
The Northrop Grumman-led B-21 effort began in 2015 under the unassuming title of Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) and has since then served as a clinic in secrecy in the modern era. Despite the presence of high-resolution cameras in just about every pocket these days, not a single image of the B-21 has managed to leak onto the internet over seven years of development and with six test-model aircraft already nearing completion.
The new stealth bomber builds upon the success of its legendary precursor, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, but is said to leverage stealth technology that’s at least “two generations” ahead of America’s long-serving flying wing. That — in itself — is a significant claim. Despite being in service for a quarter-century, the B-2 is still touted as among the stealthiest aircraft in the world.
“With the B-21, the U.S. Air Force will be able to deter or defeat threats anywhere in the world,” said Tom Jones, corporate vice president and president, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems.
“The B-21 exemplifies how Northrop Grumman is leading the industry in digital transformation and digital engineering, ultimately delivering more value to our customers.”
The B-21 benefits from more than three decades worth of advancement in stealth design since the B-2 first started flying, allowing for a more streamlined and effective shape capable of wicking away enemy efforts to both detect and target the new bomber.
It’s not just the design of the B-21 Raider that will make it stealthier than its predecessor — it will also benefit from significant advancements in material sciences. A radar-deflecting design isn’t enough to make a modern aircraft truly stealthy. They’re also covered in layers of radar-absorbing materials (RAM) that significantly minimize their radar returns. These materials help to smooth out the finish of a stealth aircraft, as even a small blemish or crack in the fuselage could compromise its low observable profile. More importantly, RAM converts radar waves hitting the aircraft into heat that it can simply dissipate.
The RAM leveraged by today’s stealth fighters is rated to absorb a whopping 70-80% of inbound electromagnetic energy (radar waves), but it’s also extremely expensive, time-consuming to maintain, and susceptible to damage when exposed to things like high-heat, water, or salt. Developments in RAM technology are among the most closely-guarded secrets in the Defense technology world, but there’s evidence to suggest that Northrop Grumman has been making continued strides in this realm over the past thirty years.
In 2017, Northrop Grumman was awarded $35.8 million to build a new “coatings facility” at the same Palmdale, California plant in which the B-21 Raider is now being built — though the contract and Northrop releases at the time did not mention the bomber by name. By 2021, however, Northrop Grumman was no longer being as shy about advancements in their coating process. While not discussing any potential improvements in the B-21 coatings’ ability to absorb energy, Northrop’s vice president of the Strike Division, Steve Sullivan, was clear that the materials leveraged for the new bomber would be a big improvement over the B-2.
“Through the application of lessons learned on B-2 and other stealth aircraft, and the use of digital engineering techniques, not only do we have a design that has significantly improved over the B-2 from both a survivability and aero-performance perspective, we also now have a coating system that is as revolutionary in its maintainability as the original B-2 systems were in their stealth performance,” he told Breaking Defense.
The B-21 Raider will be part of the first in a new generation of Airpower
In the latter half of the 20th century, the United States emerged as the global leader in airpower technology, from high-performing fighters like the F-15 and F-16 to extremely stealthy bombers like the B-2 Spirit. Now, as the B-21 cruises toward service, it will be the first of a new bevy of advanced platforms that are soon to fill American hangars.
The B-21 Raider will enter service sometime in the mid-2020s, followed by the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance fighter in the mid-2030s and the Navy’s F/A-XX fighter shortly after that.
The B-21 Raider won’t just replace the B-2 Spirit — it will also replace the supersonic heavy-payload B-1B Lancer. It will be able to do so because the Air Force intends to procure more than 100 of these new bombers — five times the quantity of B-2s ever delivered. And considering the B-21 Raider has consistently been reported as on-time and on-budget, this is one stealth program that might actually get to see deliveries meet projections.
In a real way, the unveiling of the B-21 Raider is as exciting today as the unveiling of its predecessor all the way back in 1988. Like the B-2, this new bomber could change how America approaches airborne warfare, complicate the combat calculus potential opponents need to address when challenging the nation, and raise the bar in terms of what stealth can accomplish, both for deterrence and combat capability.
The B-21 is expected to make it first test flight in 2023.
Feature image courtesy of Northrop Grumman
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John Stordahl says
Look people can’t deny the capabilities of our fine country.We will prevail in any threat that comes to us.
Joe mahma says
What? You’re an idiot! You cant even correctly write a sentence. Your jealousy of white folks is obvious. The funny thing is how we occupy your small mind 24/7 and you are miserable and hateful because of it. I find that hilarious and love it. Keep hating on us crackas, sucka!
Absolutely the clearest evidence of what a immature species looks like. To continue to expand- destroy your lives with war, with the same Earthlings you buy simple goods from. You trade everything imagined and yet your global immature governments wage fake wars. Plenty of united political things we coudo together. Like acceptance of individualities displayed is life honoring life. Like sharing our naturally grown grown by earth. Together we could expand our knowledge together, we could honor this biological creation and deal with our dirty oceans and so much more. You’ll stupid. When a mixed species is seeded on a planet or earth. We are placed here to achieve peace thus allowing coexisting with the Et-humanoid species beyond the dome. Your global governments are nothing but money grubbing, murderous individuals. Put a individual at the podium who can deliver something new. Like REALISM, this is a platform built-up by the truth and feeds all inhabitants of earth. Stipid airplane waste of provision and represents idiots.
Realism is the fact that totalitarian tyrants have always existed and will always exist until the world ends. Expecting to march against a ruthless enemy prepared only with daisies to shove in the end of their rifle barrells is both naive and foolish. Hitler was not defeated with kind words and happy thoughts but with matched firepower and superior force of will. Strength wielded by men of superior character and good will is the only path to peace that will last.
Dictatorship is USA and NATO.
The biggest surprise (they actually attempted it in public, wow) for me on B 21 was the statement by SeDef Austin, “It won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk”. Translation, the B21 will require less vulnerable, defenseless aerial refueling (the weak link in the kill chain) . The B 21 makes that possible by its smaller lighter more fuel efficient long range capability with the trade off being a smaller payload. Thus, it will be mandatory to build B 21 in large numbers++
The first contract for the B-21 stealth bomber was around 2015–and now, in 2022 they are introducing a close-to-production version? That’s, historically, a very quick development time.
Many observers of weapons system acquisitions do not understand or realize how much the B-21 relies upon previous iterations of equipment. Northrop Grumman built a large HALE stealth drone, the sp-called RQ-80–which was quickly cloaked in secrecy. Lessons from testing and perfecting that very large drone were no doubt applied to the structural design of the B-21. The F-35 program, and the F-22 program also contributed to the B-21 with mature, tested components.
That’s why the B-21 was developed so fast. A modern combat aircraft is an air frame filled with various components–and those components determine most of its capability. For example, the F-35 EOTS, HMDS, DAS, AN/APG-83 AESA radar, computer hardward, huge MDF code libraries, the F-135 engine–and much more.
All modern components are built with open architecture in mind, so that means many can plug-and-play into various weapons systems. The B-21 will be fielded before 2030 because much of it is made up of already existing, tested, and mature technology.
As the mountain of technical know-how increases in size, the mountain of knowledge converges to a smaller and smaller point–knowledge is shared. The F-35 has been called a system of systems. But the difference is that much of the tech in each subsystem is independent of the air-frame in which it is used. The tech in the F-35 will be used in the B-21, and the tech in the B-21 will be used in the NGAD fighters.
This translates into an near overwhelming advantage to the US and its allies. China has done its best to copy or steal US and Western military tech–but the J-20 and SU-57 are still few in number, and not even close to the F-35 in capability. The pace of US tech innovation is leaving China well behind.
The B-21 bomber combined with the thousands of F-35s operated by the US and its allies will confer air supremacy to the US in any future near-peer conflict. For example, 10 B-21s armed with LRASMs could launch from over 200 miles away and wipe out any CCP China invasion fleet. Just the threat of that kind of military disaster will change the calculus of CCP war planners, and deter them from attempting to make their threatened aggression and actual seaborne invasion of Taiwan.
Brad Wiley says
What does your investment have to do with the B-1 Raider stody in this discussion? Not being rude, just confused. Thank you.
Sandy Cheeks says
I’d like to see us build 500 of the airframes complete with engines; finish 200 of them and keep the 300 in cold storage for quick-ready when we need them.
Remember trying to restart the F-22 production line, anyone???
Quo Vadis says
I like your general train of thought but for the cost of 300 unfinished airframes with engines, they could probably deploy 200 more fully completed aircraft. Cost-wise, that would be prohibitive (to produce a 400-aircraft fleet with half of them sitting around in storage).
I’d rather the USAF, once the first 100 B-21’s are produced, commit to long-term, steady-state production of 10 new aircraft per year. This would allow the Raider fleet to slowly grow over time while accounting for inevitable attrition, and also enable iterative improvements and upgraded models (like for the B-52 program).
Your Mom says
Shut up SCAMMER