USA unveils new nuclear stealth bomber B-21 Raider
America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber made its debut on Friday 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 America’s first new bomber aircraft in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is confidential.
As dusk fell over the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, the public got its first glimpse of the Raider in a tightly controlled ceremony. It began with a flyover of three bombers that are still in service: the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit. Then the hangar doors slowly opened and the B-21 was partially pulled out of the building.
“This is not just another plane,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. “It epitomizes America’s determination to defend the republic we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s effort 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 gains in hypersonics, cyberwarfare and space capabilities 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 report on China.
“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’ll face one day from China, Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force when the Raider the contract was announced in 2015.
While the Raider may resemble the B-2, once you get inside, the similarities end, said Kathy Warden, chief executive of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the bomber.
“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of computing capabilities that we can now build into the software of the B-21,” Warden said.
Other changes include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber more difficult to detect, Austin said.
“Fifty years of advances in barely perceptible technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky.”
Other advances likely include new ways to control electronic emissions, so a bomber could fool enemy radars and disguise itself as another object, and the use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
“It’s incredibly low visibility,” Warden said. “You’ll hear, but you really won’t see.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 aircraft that can use either nuclear weapons or conventional bombs, and can be operated with or without a human crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the Raider’s relatively rapid development: the bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs lasted for decades.
The price of the bomber is not known. The Air Force previously estimated the cost at an average cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars — roughly $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much is actually being spent. The total will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“We will soon fly this aircraft, test it, and then put it into production. And we will build a bomber force in numbers that match the future strategic environment,” Austin said.
The undisclosed price is troubling government watchdogs.
“It could be very challenging for us to do our normal analysis of a large program like this,” said Dan Grazier, senior fellow for defense policy at the Government Oversight Project. “It’s easy to say the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs goes into the real test phase that the real problems are discovered.” That, he said, is when schedules start to slip and costs rise.
The B-2 was also envisioned as a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force built only 21, due to cost overruns and the changed security environment following the fall of the Soviet Union. Fewer than that are ready to fly each day due to the significant maintenance needs of the aging bomber.
The B-21 Raider, named after the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in 1942, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Warden said. It won’t make its first flight until 2023. However, Warden said Northrop Grumman used advanced computing to test the bomber’s performance using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one unveiled Friday.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota will be home to the first training program and bomber squadron, although the bombers are expected to be stationed at bases in Texas and Missouri.
Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, led the state’s bid to host the bomber program. In a statement, he called it “the most advanced weapons system our country has ever developed to defend itself and our allies.”
Northrop Grumman also incorporated maintenance lessons learned from the B-2, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew for 44 hours to drop the first bombs on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. The B-2 often flies long return missions because there are few hangars in the world that can accommodate its wingspan, which limits where it can land for maintenance. The hangars must also be air-conditioned because the Spirit’s windows don’t open, and the hot air conditioning can cook the electronics in the cockpit.
The new Raider will also get new hangars to accommodate its size and complexity, Warden said.
However, with the Raider’s extended range, “it won’t need to be in theater,” Austin said. “It won’t need logistical support to hold any target in harm’s way.”
The final noticeable difference was in the debut itself. While both went public in Palmdale, the B-2 was brought out into the open in 1988 to great public fanfare. Given the advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider was only partially exposed, keeping its sensitive propulsion systems and sensors below the hangar and shielded from overhead view.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”
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