The US introduces the new B-21 Raider stealth nuclear bomber
- December 3, 2022
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America’s latest stealth nuclear bomber debuted 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 the first new American bomber aircraft in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is classified.
As evening fell over Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, the public got their first glimpse of the Raider in a tightly controlled ceremony. It began with an overflight of the three bombers 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 towed out of the building.
The US Air Force unveiled the B-21 Raider on December 2, 2022 in Palmdale, California. It is the first American bomber plane in more than 30 years. US Air Force
“This is not just another plane,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said. “It is the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s effort to modernize all three pillars of its nuclear triad, which includes siled ballistic nuclear missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it shifts from the counterterrorism campaigns of recent decades to China’s to accommodate rapid military modernization.
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its advances in hypersonic, cyber warfare and space capabilities “pose the most momentous and systemic challenge to U.S. national security and the free and open international system,” he said the Pentagon this week in its annual China report.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to face much more complicated threats, like the threats we fear we might one day expect from China and Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, the Secretary of the Air Force, as the Raider contract was announced in 2015.
While the Raider may resemble the B-2, the similarities stop once you get inside, said Kathy Warden, executive director of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the bomber.
“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, as the technology has progressed to the point in terms of processing power that we can now embed it into the B-21’s software,” said warden.
Other changes include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber harder to detect, Austin said.
“Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will have trouble spotting a B-21 in the sky.”
Other advances likely include new ways to control electronic emissions to allow the bomber to spoof enemy radars and masquerade as another object, and the use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
“It’s incredibly low observability,” Warden said. “You’ll hear it, but you really won’t see it.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100, capable of using either nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and operating with or without a human crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the relatively rapid development of the Raider: the bomber went from contract to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have lasted for decades.
The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force previously priced it at an average of $550 million a piece in 2010 — about $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much is actually being spent. The amount will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“We will soon be flying this aircraft, testing it, and then moving it into production. And we will build the bomber force in numbers appropriate to the strategic environment of the future,” Austin said.
The undisclosed cost worries government watchdogs.
“It could be a big challenge for us to do our normal analysis of a large program like this,” said Dan Grazier, senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s easy to tell that the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies, because it’s only when any of these programs go into actual testing that real problems are discovered.” Then, he said, schedules start slipping and costs go up.
The B-2 was also intended to be a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Luftwaffe built only 21 due to cost overruns and a changing security environment after the fall of the Soviet Union. Due to the aging bomber’s significant maintenance needs, fewer than that are ready to fly on any given day .
The B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the 1942 Doolittle raid over Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Warden said. It won’t make its first flight until 2023. But Warden said Northrop Grumman used advanced computers to test the bomber’s performance with a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one unveiled on Friday.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota will house the bomber’s initial training program and squadron, although the bombers are expected to be based at bases in Texas and Missouri as well.
Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, led the state’s bid to host the bomber program. In a statement, he called it “the most advanced weapons system ever developed by our country to defend ourselves and our allies.”
Northrop Grumman also incorporated the maintenance lessons learned from the B-2, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew 44 hours straight after the September 11 attacks to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan. The B-2 often makes long roundtrip flights as there are few hangars in the world capable of accommodating its span, limiting landing opportunities for maintenance. The hangars must also be air-conditioned as the Spirit’s windows do not open and hot climates can heat up the cockpit electronics.
The new raider will also get new hangars to accommodate its size and complexity, Warden said.
However, with the Raider’s extended range, “it doesn’t have to be stationed in the theater of operations,” Austin said. “No logistical support is needed to put a target in jeopardy.”
A final noticeable difference was in the debut itself. While both went public in Palmdale, the B-2 rolled outdoors in 1988 to much public fanfare. Given advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider was only partially exposed, with its delicate propulsion systems and sensors remaining under the hangar and protected from eyes from above.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”