What we have learned from the new B-21 Raider pictures

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Recently released pictures of America’s next stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, offer us some new angles – and insights – into the development of this highly classified platform.

These new images were released to the public alongside remarks delivered by Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown during a conference held by the Air & Space Forces Association. One of the images, taken from inside Northrop Grumman’s hangar at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, provides some basis for comparison to assess just how big this stealthy new aircraft actually is.

B-21 Raider inside Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, California (U.S. Air Force photo)

Another image is even more striking, however, as it offers us our first glimpse of the aircraft from an angle other than head-on.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

A third image was also posted by Northrop Grumman, giving us a glimpse of the front-left side of the aircraft.

(Northrop Grumman)

According to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS), these images were taken on July 31. As Tyler Rogoway at The Warzone points out, that means they were taken shortly after Northrop Grumman announced “powering on” the first pre-production Raider in testing. Earlier this year, Northrop Grumman reported that at least six B-21 Raiders were already at some stage of production, with the Air Force ultimately planning on purchasing at least 100.

Despite a great deal of secrecy surrounding the program, the effort appears to still be largely on-schedule – a significant feat in itself in this era of stealth aviation. The Air Force expects the aircraft to conduct its first test flight in the coming months – potentially even before the end of this year.

“We’re still hopeful on having first flight this year,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told reporters at the event. Kendall was careful to qualify his statements, however. “If I were to say it will, I would be making a very specific prediction. And I never do that about an acquisition program for something that hasn’t happened yet.”

Related: The birth of stealth: How defeating radar became the way of war

What do these images tell us?

The folks at The Warzone have already put together an extensive list of details they were able to pick out from these images – like the positioning of various sensors and antenna arrays – that we encourage you to check out here. Among the most notable revelations (or confirmations) to come from these images include just how pronounced the Raider’s duckbill forward of the cockpit is, as compared to the aircraft’s stealth precursor, the B-2 Spirit.

B-21 (top) vs. B-2 (bottom). B-2 image has been flipped for comparison.

The above comparison shot also highlights just how far the Raider goes to tuck its air-breathing jet inlets into its fuselage to further improve its stealth profile. The unusual windows or windscreens on the B-21’s cockpit are once again tough to ignore. Their positioning, especially in comparison to the dotted profile of the ejection hatch panels adorning the top of the cockpit, suggests exterior visibility in the B-21 will be extremely limited.

Close-up of the B-21 cockpit (U.S. Air Force photo)

The positioning of these unusual windows suggests they were designed to support in-flight refueling and provide minimal awareness of the pilot’s surroundings while taxiing on the runway.

Of course, these pictures do offer us some never-before-seen angles of the B-21 Raider. Yet, we have still yet to see the back of the aircraft, which is expected as the engine outlets and engine configuration are the most secretive part of the platform.

Official renders show that the B-21 flies with a “W” shaped trailing edge, but thus far, renders are the only glimpse we’ve gotten of it. In fact, there is still a long list of questions left unanswered about this platform, including whether or not it’s powered by two engines or four.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.