After years of secret work, America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber is finally being shown to the public. This is part of the Pentagon’s plan to ease worries about a future war with China.
The B-21 Raider is the first new bomber plane made in the United States in more than 30 years. Almost everything about the programme is kept secret.
Before its debut on Friday at an Air Force base in Palmdale, California, only pictures made by artists have been shown.
From those few pictures, we can see that the Raider looks like the B-2 Spirit, the black nuclear stealth bomber that the Raider will eventually replace.
The bomber is part of the Pentagon’s plan to update all three legs of its nuclear triad, which also includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it moves away from the counterterrorism campaigns of the past few decades and tries to keep up with 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 significant and systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said this week in its annual report on China.
When the Raider contract was announced in 2015, the Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, said, “We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to take on much more complicated threats, like the threats we fear we will face one day from China and Russia.”
“The B-21 is more likely to stay alive and can deal with these much tougher threats.”
Even though the Raider looks like the B-2 from the outside, Kathy Warden, the CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., which is building the Raider, said that the similarities end once you get inside.
“Compared to the B-2, how it works on the inside is very advanced, because technology has come so far in terms of the computing power we can now put into the B-21’s software,” said Warden.
Several defence analysts said that the bomber is likely to use new coatings made of advanced materials to make it harder to spot, new ways to control electronic emissions so it can trick enemy radars and look like something else, and new propulsion technologies.
Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia, said in a fact sheet that it is using “new manufacturing techniques and materials to make sure the B-21 can beat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face.”
Warden couldn’t talk about the details of these technologies, but he did say that the bomber will be less noticeable.
“When we say low observability, we mean it’s very hard to see,” Warden said. “You’ll hear about it, but you won’t see it for real.”
The Air Force plans to build 100 B-21 Raiders, which can drop either nuclear weapons or regular bombs and can be used with or without a crew. Six are already being made.
Both the Air Force and Northrop point to how quickly the Raider was made. It took only seven years from the time a contract was given to the bomber’s first flight. Other new fighter and ship programmes have taken decades.
No one knows how much the bombers cost.
The Air Force estimated that buying 100 planes would cost an average of $550 million each in 2010 dollars, which is about $753 million today. However, it is not clear how much the Air Force is actually spending.
Government watchdogs are upset that the price is not known to the public.
Dan Grazier, a senior defence policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, said, “It might be hard for us to do our usual analysis of a big programme like this.”
“Before the B-21 even takes off, it’s easy to say that everything is still on track. Because real problems are only found when one of these programmes goes through the testing phase. So, that’s when schedules start to really slip and costs start to really go up.”
The first flight of the Raider won’t happen until 2023.
Warden said that Northrop Grumman has been testing the Raider’s performance using a digital twin, which is a virtual copy of the one that is being shown off.
The B-2 was also supposed to be a fleet of more than 100 planes, but the Air Force only built 21 of them because of rising costs and a change in security needs after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Todd Harrison, an aerospace expert and managing director at Metrea Strategic Insights, said that less than that number are ready to fly on any given day because the bomber is getting old and needs a lot of maintenance.
Warden said that the B-21 Raider will be a little smaller than the B-2 so that it can fly farther. Its name comes from the 1942 Doolittle Raid over Tokyo.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew 44 hours straight to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the B-2 often does long round-trip missions, because there are few hangars globally that can accommodate its wingspan.
That limits where B-2s can land for needed post-flight maintenance. And the hangars needed to be air-conditioned – because the Spirit’s windows don’t open, hotter climates can cook cockpit electronics.
Warden also said that the new Raider will get new hangars to fit the size and complexity of the bomber.
The debut itself is the last thing that stands out as different. Both will have been shown for the first time at the Air Force’s Palmdale Plant 42, but the B-2 was rolled outside to a lot of public attention in 1989.
Due to improvements in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider will be shown for the first time in a hangar, where it will be kept very secret.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other invited guests will see the hangar doors open to show the bomber to the public, and then the doors will close again.