The US Air Force (USAF) marked a major milestone in its history on December 2, when the air arm ushered in a new age of sixth-generation combat aircraft with the public unveiling of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber at Northrop Grumman’s production facilities in Palmdale, California.
After a significant media campaign to build-up the unveiling of the most advanced US military aircraft produced to date, the hotly anticipated public rollout of the USAF’s new stealth bomber comes as tensions across the world – ranging from Chinese and North Korean aggression in the Indo-Pacific region to the ongoing Ukraine-Russia War in Europe – continues to build. The first B-21 (referred to as ‘T1’, or ‘Aircraft 001’) was rolled out in front of a sea of journalists that had been invited to Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale production facilities to attend the event in person, as thousands more watched the unveiling via a live-stream that was provided by the company.
Heralded by Northrop Grumman and the USAF as the aircraft that will form the future backbone of US airpower, the B-21 will be the face of a family of systems that will deliver new capabilities and greater flexibility to the US air arm via the advanced integration of data, sensors and weapons. Referred to as the world’s first sixth-generation combat aircraft (to be unveiled at least), the USAF will benefit from the highly low observable (LO) design of the B-21, as well as the platform’s information advantage and digital open architecture backbone capabilities.
Commenting on the platform at the unveiling ceremony, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin III, highlighted how the B-21 will help strengthen the USAF and its ability to project airpower going forward. He said: “The B-21 Raider is the first strategic bomber in more than three decades. It is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation.
“It’s proof of the Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future. Now, strengthening and sustaining US deterrence is at the heart of our National Defense Strategy. This bomber was built on a foundation of strong, bipartisan support in Congress and, because of that support, we will soon fly this aircraft, test it and then move into production,” he added.
This initial aircraft (‘T1’) is currently undergoing an extensive ground test campaign and is set to complete the platform’s maiden flight sometime in 2023. Another five B-21s are known to be in various stages of production with Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, where the firm produced the USAF’s fleet of B-2A Spirit stealth bombers from 1987-2000. Along with the supersonic-capable Rockwell B-1B Lancer – which entered US military service in October 1986 – the B-2A will ultimately be phased out and replaced by a planned fleet of “at least 100” B-21s with an average procurement unit cost requirement of US$692m, according to the USAF.
The USAF intends to operate a future bomber fleet that totals 225 aircraft and is purely made up of Northrop Grumman’s new B-21 Raider and Boeing’s veteran B-52H Stratofortress, which entered operational service with the air arm in February 1955 and is slated to remain in Air Force service until 2050. With the Spirit and Lancer set to be retired following the introduction of the Raider, the USAF would need to acquire at least 149 B-21s to meet its targeted fleet size of 225, given that just 76 B-52Hs remain operational. No formal retirement date has been set for the B-1B and B-2A, nor has an official entry-into-service date been disclosed for the B-21, but initial fielding of the new stealth bomber is expected to take place in 2026/2027. However, the USAF has divested its first 17 B-1Bs in line with this effort.
In accordance with the USAF’s B-21 design requirements – which were set out as part of the air arm’s Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) programme – the Raider is billed by the service as a long-range, highly survivable subsonic stealth bomber that is capable of penetrating adversary air defence networks deep behind enemy lines and delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions on targets across the globe. It is also capable of networking with multiple systems across all domains in the battlespace and will be supported by a digital ecosystem throughout its operational lifecycle, enabling the B-21 to quickly evolve through rapid technology updates that provide the platform with new capabilities to meet and outpace future threats.
Before the aircraft was unveiled on December 2, the USAF’s Chief of Staff – Gen Charles Q Brown Jr – told reporters: “The innovative spirit is sitting behind us right now. You think about what we’re able to do in the amount of time with the workforce here from Northrop Grumman, the collaboration with the USAF to bring in a capability using a digital approach which is new and different from anything we’ve done [on] any major programme, that’s part of the Raider spirit. When I think about accelerated change, this is exactly what it means to be able to bring this kind of capability very quickly and be able to adapt it vis-à-vis the threat. So today, I’m really excited that we bring the B-21 Raider into the future.”
While the USAF’s second-generation stealth bomber, but first sixth-generation combat aircraft, bears a strike resemblance to its predecessor, the B-2A Spirit – given that they’re both of a futuristic-looking, triangular, sleek flying-wing design that is highly optimised for stealth operations – the Raider is notably smaller, sleeker and stealthier. Due to its smaller size, the B-21 ultimately has a reduced maximum payload when compared with the B-2A, but as current plans will see the USAF acquire upwards of 100 Raiders, this can be mitigated by the numbers.
Unlike the Spirit, the Raider does not feature serrated edges throughout its design, nor does its two engine intakes extend out of the fuselage to the same extent of the B-2’s does. Interestingly, the B-21’s windscreen seems to offer good forward visibility, but its side windows – which are curved, as was first seen in digital renderings of the type released prior to the aircraft’s formal roll-out – do not. It was likely designed this way to help further enhance the type’s LO characteristics and it will be interesting to learn how the B-21’s sixth-generation capabilities help mitigate any loss of visibility or situational awareness for future Raider aircrews.
The key difference between the two though is the colour. While the B-2A has always been painted in its traditional black livery – as is often associated with USAF stealth aircraft, such as the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk – the B-21 was revealed sporting a very light grey colour scheme. While this may not be the final paint scheme applied to operational frontline Raiders once the type enters operational service, it gives a good indication that this new-generation stealth bomber will be able to be operated in all conditions, day or night.
In terms of fielding, the USAF completed the Strategic Basing Process for the type in 2019. The air arm revealed that Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) in South Dakota, Whiteman AFB in Missouri and Dyess AFB in Texas were the preferred main operating bases for the future Raider fleet. In 2021, the USAF announced that Ellsworth would be the first main operating base to receive the B-21 and would host the type’s formal training unit. Prior to this, the Raider will be operated from Edwards AFB, California, during its initial test and evaluation phase. On October 4, 2019, the 420th Flight Test Squadron was reactivated at Edwards and will be planning, testing, analysing and reporting on all flight and ground testing of the B-21.
There is no doubting the fact that the arrival of the B-21 is a game-changer for the USAF and it has been hyped up as such, which is to be expected when an air arm is rolling out the first of a new-generation of combat aircraft. While the Raider will not be initially fielded in operational USAF service for another several years, many elements of the Raider – from the science and technologies used in its design to how it and the family of systems it leads will further modernise and evolve the USAF’s bomber force, bringing it more into the digital age – remain unknown. As is the case with the B-2A, which will still know so little about after 30 years of operations, this secretive status-quo will continue through the Raider.