WASHINGTON (AP) – America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber is making its public debut 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. Ahead of the unveiling Friday at an Air Force base in Palmdale, Calif., only artists’ renderings of the warplane have been released. These few images reveal that the Raider resembles the black nuclear stealth bomber it will eventually replace, the B-2 Spirit.
The bomber 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 meet China’s rapid military modernization.
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its advances in hypersonics, cyber warfare, space capabilities and other areas pose “the most consequential and systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said. this week in 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 that we fear we would face one day from China, Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, when the Raider contract was announced in 2015. “The B-21 is more survivable and can take on these much more difficult threats.”
While the Raider may look similar to the B-2, the similarities stop once you get inside, said Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the Raider.
“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2 because the technology has advanced so much in terms of the computing capability that we can now integrate into the software of the B-21,” Warden said.
Other changes likely include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber harder to detect, new ways to control electronic emissions so the bomber could spoof enemy radars and disguise itself as another object, and the use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
In a fact sheet, Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia, said it is using “new manufacturing techniques and materials to ensure the B-21 will defeat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face. “
Warden could not discuss the specifics of those technologies, but said the bomber will be more stealthy.
“When we talk about low observability, it’s incredibly low observability,” Warden said. “You’ll hear it, but you really won’t see it.”
Six B-21 Raiders are in production; The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy either nuclear 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 quick development: The bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have taken decades.
The price of the bombers is not known. The Air Force previously put the cost of a 100-plane purchase at an average price of $550 million each in 2010 dollars — about $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much the Air Force is actually spending.
The fact that the price is not public worries the government’s watchdogs.
“It can be a big challenge for us to do our normal analysis of a major 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 track before it actually flies. Because it is only when one of these programs enters the actual testing phase that real problems are discovered. And then that’s the point where the schedules really start to slip and the costs really start to add up.”
The Raider won’t make its first flight until 2023. But using advanced computing, Warden said, Northrop Grumman has tested the Raider’s performance using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one being unveiled.
The B-2 was also envisioned to be a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force ultimately built only 21 of them 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 because of the aging bomber’s significant maintenance needs, said Todd Harrison, an aerospace specialist and managing director at Metrea Strategic Insights.
The B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in 1942, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase range, 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. But the B-2 often makes long round-trip missions because there are few hangars globally that can accommodate its wingspan. It limits where B-2s can land for necessary post-flight maintenance. And the hangars had to be air-conditioned — because Spirit’s windows don’t open, warmer climates can cook cockpit electronics.
The new Raider will also get new hangars to accommodate the bomber’s size and complexity, Warden said.
A final noticeable difference is in the debut itself. While both will have debuted at the Air Force’s Palmdale Plant 42, in 1988 the B-2 was rolled outdoors to much public fanfare.
Given advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider will debut very much under wraps and will be seen inside a hangar. Invited guests including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will see the hangar doors open to reveal the bomber for its public introduction, after which the doors will be closed again.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”