B-21 bomber presented by Northrop Grumman in California
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking outside the hangar, said the aircraft is evidence of the Defense Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will “strengthen America’s ability to deter aggression, today and in the future.” The stealthy plane, he said, has incorporated “50 years of advances in low-detection technology,” making it difficult for “even the most sophisticated air defense systems” to detect the B-21 in the sky.
“The B-21 looks imposing,” Austin said. “But what’s beneath the space-age frames and coatings is even more impressive.”
Austin added that America’s defense is rooted in deterrence, and the development of the B-21 again serves as a symbol.
“We make it clear again to any potential adversary: the risks and costs of aggression far outweigh any imaginable gains,” Austin said.
The program is expected to cost at least $80 billion, and the Air Force is seeking at least 100 aircraft. It marks the US military’s first aircraft with so-called sixth-generation technology, which relies on advanced artificial intelligence, computer networking and data fusion to assist pilots as they conduct long-range bombing missions that require them to enter and exit enemy airspace. The Air Force is also investigating whether the B-21 could be flown long-range, though that would likely be years after the first takes off.
Much of the program remains classified, even as senior U.S. defense officials and company executives have celebrated its progress. Media attending the event here in Palmdale were asked to abide by a number of ground rules, including no cell phones in the viewing area and, for visual journalists, restrictions on how the aircraft can be photographed.
There are six prototypes of the B-21, company officials said. The first test flight is expected next year.
For now, the Raider is in the “ground test” phase, with Air Force and Northrop Grumman officials conducting stress tests, evaluating the application of its radar-reflecting paint and testing basic functions such as taxiing, Northrop Grumman officials said.
More than 8,000 people work on aspects of the program, and aircraft parts come from 40 countries.
The Pentagon intends for the Raider to replace the aging B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer bombers, phasing out the older aircraft by the 2040s. The decades-old B-52 bombers may also be replaced by the B-21 in the coming years. Friday’s unveiling event included a flyover of all three aging bombers.
Until 2006, the Defense Department believed it could last with its existing fleet of bombers until 2037. But the Pentagon began exploring alternatives over the next decade, and in 2014 launched a tender for a contract for a new long-range bomber.
The U.S. military has faced costly problems and delays in the development of other major weapons systems for many years, including the advanced F-35 fighter that will likely be paired with the B-21 in future operations.
Air Force and company officials said in a panel discussion with reporters Friday that the program continues to meet the service’s cost requirements, even as the cost per copy has continued to rise. In 2010, the service said it hoped each plane would cost about $550 million. By 2019, the price had risen to $639 million, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last year, and the price is expected to continue rising.
Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters in Palmdale that the development of the B-21 was the product of a collaboration between the service and Northrop Grumman. He pointed out that the plane’s Raider nickname is a nod to the Doolittle Raiders, members of the U.S. military who launched a long, daring bombing raid on Japan in April 1942, just months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii plunged the United States into the world war. II.
“That innovative spirit is behind us right now,” Brown said, speaking in the hangar before the unveiling event as the B-21 sat under a cloak.
Kathy Warden, chief executive of Northrop Grumman, said Friday that the company iterated through thousands of versions of the plane before choosing a design. Part of its testing and development takes place digitally before the company builds the hardware, keeping costs down.
“In many ways,” Warden said, “we’re taking technology from the future and bringing it to the here and now on this plane.”
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