A veil of secrecy has finally been lifted from Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider – the next-generation stealth bomber under development for the US Air Force (USAF).
Joined by senior members of the US Department of Defense, Northrop revealed what it describes as the world’s first sixth-generation military aircraft on 2 December at its development facility in Palmdale, California.
“The B-21 looks imposing”, says US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin, the streamlined swept-wing aircraft parked behind him. “But what is underneath the frame and space-age coating is even more imposing.”
The unveiling came some 34 years after the B-21’s predecessor and current USAF strategic stealth bomber, Northrop’s B-2 Spirit, made its first public appearance – also at the defence contractor’s Palmdale prototyping and testing facility, which sits on the USAF’s Plant 42 site northeast of Los Angeles.
Northrop chief executive Kathy Warden says the defence contractor drew heavily on its decades of experience building and maintaining the B-2, and calls the B-21 “the most-capable stealth bomber ever built”.
The Raider brings back the “flying-wing” design of its predecessor. Warden notes that Northrop settled on the final B-21 design after exploring thousands of options to meet the USAF’s requirements for cost and low-observability.
“The flying wing is the best alternative for meeting those requirements and affordability targets,” Warden says.
The aircraft features an unconventional window layout for the cockpit, and its engine intakes are also greatly recessed. Placing the intakes above the fuselage, also a feature of the B-2, makes it harder for ground-based radars to detect the jet’s engine signature.
The B-21 test aircraft remained in a hangar during the Palmdale revealing event, precluding examination of the jet’s trailing edge and engine exhaust.
The USAF has set a price target of $500 million per airframe, valued in 2010 dollars. That works out to $631 million in 2022 values. Warden says Northrop is on track to meet that goal.
General Charles Brown, USAF chief of staff, says that price ceiling is critical to ensuring his service is able to build-out a sufficiently deep B-21 fleet.
“One hundred is the number we’re shooting for,” says Brown of the USAF’s acquisition target. “It will be the backbone of our bomber fleet.”
“We had a very firm cost target,” adds USAF acquisition chief Andrew Hunter. “That will allow us to meet our number needs.”
Hunter insists focus on price does not come at the cost of the aircraft’s low-observability requirements, which he calls “central to the design process”.
Northrop aims to complete the B-21’s first flight in 2023, using what it calls a “production representative aircraft”.
The company has six B-21 airframes in various stages of production and testing. Delivery of the first aircraft is projected for the mid-2020s.
The USAF has selected Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota as the preferred location for its B-21 main operating base, and aims to reach initial operating capability on the programme before the end of the decade.
The B-21 is the USAF’s first new combat aircraft since 2016, and only its fourth new crewed, combat aircraft in 32 years. Service leaders say the platform will be a critical tool of deterrence, and if necessary combat power, for decades.
“Even the most-significant air defence systems will struggle to detect the B-21 in the sky,” says Austin. He adds that the type’s advanced sensor systems will allow it to play an important role in other realms of warfare, including intelligence and battlefield management.
Hunter says the Raider “will allow us to carry out our missions in the Indo-Pacific, and anywhere in the world”.
Retired Major General Doug Raaberg, a former B-2 pilot and current executive vice-president of the Air and Space Forces Association (AFA), predicts the new bomber will become “the essential backbone of US national security strategy”.
“Its ability to get in, stay in and kill targets – to hold targets at risk – is how we deter potential adversaries from taking the chance of war with the United States and our allies,” Raaberg says.
While the Raider appears to share features with the antecedent B-2, its manufacturer says the new aircraft has substantial upgrades.
Speaking at the 2022 AFA conference in September, Northrop vice-president Thomas Jones said the flight computer that powers the B-21 represents a “leap forward” that will allow for faster and easier modernisation upgrades over the aircraft’s lifespan.
Engineers designed the aircraft for ease of maintenance, making it a “daily flyer”, Jones added. “We took lessons learned from the B-2… in maintaining stealth platforms.”
The B-2 – priced at $2.2 billion per airframe – requires a costly and labour-intensive regimen of regular maintenance to retain its stealthy surface and low-observable profile.
An expert with Northrop’s B-2 programme tells FlightGlobal each Spirit bomber requires a substantial overhaul every nine years, including complete resurfacing of the airframe’s radar absorbent coating. That process can take up to a year to complete.
The world now has a view of the B-21, but much about the programme remains unknown.
Though the USAF aims purchase at least 100 B-21s, long lead times for new military aircraft can leave early plans subject to change amid budgetary politics in Washington and evolving geopolitical factors. The USAF ultimately only acquired 20 B-2 Spirits despite initial plans for many more.
Those reductions, which were driven in part by the B-2’s soaring per unit cost, were a major influence on the USAF’s focus on controlling B-21 costs.
Some observers foresee the need for an even larger B-21 fleet than the current USAF target.
“We need a bomber force of at least 200 aircraft,” said retired Boeing B-52 pilot Mark Gunzinger, now with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, at an event in September. He and other B-21 supporters describe the aircraft as critical for deterrence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific theatre.
Northrop says 90% of the USA’s current bomber fleet is incapable of “penetrating enemy air defences and reaching targets anywhere in the world”.
The existing fleet includes 43 Boeing B-1B Lancer non-nuclear bombers, 72 B-52s and 18 operational B-2s – a total 133 aircraft. The USAF ultimately intends for B-21s to replace those three types.
Randall Walden, director of the USAF Rapid Capabilities Office, in May described the B-21 test aircraft as the “most-production-representative aircraft, both structurally and in its mission systems, at this point in a programme, that I have seen in my career”.
USAF acquisitions chief Hunter says Northrop and other suppliers are equipped to meet the 100 aircraft goal, with some room to expand production further.
One thing that is abundantly clear: Washington policy makers want the world to know the USA will soon have the Raider in its arsenal, and with it, the ability to respond anywhere in the world.
“We are again making it plain to any foe,” says Austin. “The risks and costs of aggression far outweigh any gains.”