The Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider is expected to enter service sometime within the next ten years. Once it does, it just may be the most advanced military aircraft ever to go into combat.
The United States has operated at the forefront of stealth technology in aviation since its very inception, starting with the F-117 Nighthawk in 1981. For decades thereafter, America was the only nation on the planet with stealth aircraft in its arsenal, but 38 long years after the F-117 first took to the skies, the competition is beginning to catch up. China recently announced plans for their heavy payload H-20 stealth bomber, and both Russia and China now claim to have fully operational fifth-generation stealth fighters in service. Although many of the claims made be both nations leave some room for debate, one this is clear: America no longer has a monopoly on stealth aircraft.
Worse still, air defense systems have matured rapidly in recent decades, and despite the many misconceptions about stealth technology, stealth does not mean invisible to radar. In fact, even the most advanced stealth platforms in the world still need to rely on a multi-faceted strategy to allow them to operate in contested airspace undetected. We tend to think of stealth as a single technology, but it’s actually an all encompassing approach to aircraft design and operation that leverages a combination of technology and strategy to complete whatever mission is at hand.
So what makes the B-21 Raider special?
Northrop Grumman’s B-21 program has been a clinic in secrecy, with very few hard facts surfacing about the platform since the contract to build it was awarded to the aviation firm in 2015. What we know for sure is that the aircraft was purpose-built from the ground up to replace at least two thirds of America’s aging heavy bomber fleet. Currently, the U.S. relies on the nuclear capable B-52 Stratofortress, the supersonic B-1B Lancer, and the stealthy B-2 Spirit for heavy bombing missions the world over. Once the B-21 enters service, both the B-2 Spirit and B-1b Lancer will begin retiring out of service, with the mighty B-52 remaining on duty for decades to come.
The single artist’s rendering of the B-21 Raider that’s been released thus far shows clearly that this new stealth bomber will lean heavily on the design of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, but the B-21 is expected to offer a significant improvement in stealth capabilities thanks to updated systems, improved radar-absorbent coating, and the same basic engine systems found in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Thanks to America’s continued work on stealth technologies, the B-21 should be harder to detect than any bomber in history, but without the massive price tag associated with previous stealth programs.
How will the B-21 Raider operate?
In order to serve as a viable replacement for both the super-fast B-1B and the super-stealthy B-2 Spirit, the B-21 Raider will have to be able to engage any target, at any time, anywhere on the globe. Although it’s expected the the B-21 will be a subsonic aircraft (as in, not capable of breaking the speed of sound), it’s long fuel range and in-flight refueling capabilities will make it capable of engaging targets the world over from any military air strip that’s long enough to support it. Likewise, strategic positioning of these bombers at installations around the globe will give the U.S. the ability to strike heavily defended targets anywhere on the planet within a matter of hours.
What kind of firepower will it carry?
Much like its predecessor, the B-21 will be capable of carrying a variety of nuclear weapons like the B-61 variable-yield nuclear gravity bomb and the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile, but that’s far from all it will carry. The B-21 will likely be equipped to handle a large number of conventional weapons that will allow the B-21 to play an active role in combat operations around the world. Because there’s been no information on the B-21’s payload capacity released to the public, we’ll have to use our best judgement here.
It stands to reason that the B-21 will absorb the B-1B Lancer’s ability to launch Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, meaning it will be the perfect stealth aircraft to engage surface combatant ships in places like the South China Sea. Many modern weapons, like Boeing’s GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, are designed to engage targets from great distances, allowing the B-21 to remain hidden from view as it engages distant targets.
Why do we need a new bomber?
America’s current heavy bomber fleet includes around 157 aircraft, but a large number of those platforms aren’t ready to fly. America’s existing bombers are all decades old now, and although they’ve received regular updates, its becoming more and more expensive to keep them in the air and operating safely. Replacing aging bombers with the B-21 will actually save the Air Force money in the long run, as it reduces its reliance on the older bombers that are so expensive to operate.
But cost savings aren’t the only reason Uncle Sam’s all in for the B-21–it’s also a matter of capability. With advanced air defense systems like Russia’s S-400 platform becoming increasingly available around the world, the United States needs to field more advanced stealth bombers to defeat or avoid detection.
The B-21 Raider is expected to enter service in the latter half of this decade, with its first slight expected to come sometime in late 2021 or early 2022.
Feature photo by Airman 1st Class Taylor Phifer. U.S. Air Force