BREAKING: After Years of Secrecy, Air Force Rolls Out B-21 Raider Bomber

By Stew Magnuson

PALMDALE, California — The Air Force for the first time Dec. 2 revealed its new long-range strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, in a ceremony at prime contractor Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, California.


In front of hundreds of spectators, mostly Northrop Grumman employees who had been working in secrecy on the project for the seven years, the company towed the wing-shaped aircraft out of Air Force Hangar 42 — some 30 years after the last bomber it developed, the B-2 Spirit, made its debut at the same facility.


Invited guests including lawmakers, Defense Department and service officials, executives from the aircraft’s many subcontractors and members of the media. The event was live streamed for the public.


“The B-21’s edge will last for decades to come,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III said during the opening ceremony.


The aircraft was envisioned in the mid-2000s as a stealthy, long-range bomber that could deliver conventional or nuclear weapons deep inside enemy territories and evade modern air defenses. Original plans called for a minimum of 100 bombers and for them to cost $500 million apiece in 2010 dollars.


“The B-21 looks imposing, but what is under the frame and its space-age coating is even more impressive,” Austin said.


“Even the most sophisticated air-defense systems will struggle to detect the B-21 in the sky,” he said. The aircraft was also designed with open architectures so as enemy threats evolve, its electronics and defense systems can be easily upgraded to keep pace, he added.


It is being touted as the first aircraft digitally designed from its inception. New digital engineering techniques, which allow engineers to test components and aspects of a platform with computer simulations, greatly sped up the development process, said Kathy Warden, Northrop Grumman president and CEO.


Austin said the Raider will be ineffective if it needed to be repaired frequently. "The B-21 was carefully designed to be the most maintainable aircraft ever built,” he said.


The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman the contract to build what was then called the Long Range Strike Bomber in October 2015. Over the past seven years and two months, the program has been shrouded in secrecy, save some artist’s renderings released to the public that showed the aircraft’s silhouette.


The Air Force later designated the aircraft the B-21, the number signifying the 21st century, and named it the “Raider,” in tribute to the Lt. Col. James Doolittle and his Doolittle Raiders, who led a one-way mission during World War II to bomb Tokyo in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Members of the Doolittle Raider’s families were on hand for the ceremony.


Key among the aircraft’s new features is what Northrop Grumman is calling next-generation stealth technology, “employing new manufacturing techniques and materials to ensure the B-21 will defeat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face,” a company statement said.


The B-21’s stealth technology builds on 50 years of developing low-observable aircraft, Warden told reporters prior to the ceremony.


“The world has never seen technology like the B-21,” she said. It is a sixth-generation aircraft designed to fly anywhere in the world, evade enemy defense, deliver munitions without the need of support aircraft, and return to base in the United States. The program is “bringing the technology of the future to the here and now,” she added.


Along with keeping the aircraft’s technology under wraps, the Air Force also declared that the program’s budget was classified. While still not disclosing costs, Warden said the program remains on budget and on schedule.


The Raider rolled out Dec. 2 was one of six bombers that are in various stages of production, Northrop said. Some 400 subcontractors are supplying parts or services spread out in 40 states. The program involves some 8,000 people in the industrial base and the Air Force.


“We will soon fly this aircraft, test it, then move it into production,” Austin said. Test flights are expected to begin in 2023.


As for delivery to the Air Force, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said that would be the “mid-2020s,” but declined to be more specific. The first B-21s will be fielded at Ellsworth Air Force base in South Dakota.

For more on the B-21 Raider, read the January 2023 issue of National Defense.

Topics: Air Force News

Comments (2)

Re: BREAKING: After Years of Secrecy, Air Force Rolls Out B-21 Raider Bomber

New digital engineering techniques greatly sped up the transfer to China process.

Chinch at 12:52 PM
Re: BREAKING: After Years of Secrecy, Air Force Rolls Out B-21 Raider Bomber

If the B-21 is optionally manned, then that is a game changer and a force multiplier.

How many B-21s would the USAF risk unmanned to accomplish a mission at $550 million each?

Nonetheless, if unmanned or even remote-piloted, then huge possibilities are open to the DoD without risking a flight crew. Safeguards would definitely need to be incorporated to prevent hacking and hijacking any optionally-manned B-21, even remote-destruction of the bomber to prevent it from falling into enemy hands or landing on an enemy's runway.

Trishaw at 6:09 PM
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