The U.S. Air Force’s forthcoming long range stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, is slated to enter into service within the next seven or so years. That would suggest that all testing will be completed and the bomber will have already been in production long enough to field service ready aircraft as soon as 2025. That seems like a tall order, seeing as no one has managed to set eyes on the this new plane that’s expected to be flying combat operations so soon. In fact, so little is known about the B-21 that many have begun to wonder whether Northrop Grumman’s success at keeping their secrets is a result of the aircraft not actually existing yet.
“Our most recent review was last week, and the B-21 is on schedule and performance,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said of the B-21 earlier this week. “It’s a good example of how to run a major acquisition program well and why delegation of authority back to the services … works to get high quality and to do so quickly.”
If you were hoping to learn any more about the next generation bomber during Wilson’s remarks at the Reagan National Defense forum this week, you’ll be disappointed by the rest of this article. Aside from acknowledging that the B-21 program is still in its early stages, the only other statement she made about one of the most secretive aircraft the U.S. has developed in decades was simply that her branch is “pleased with how that program is going forward.”
The Air Force itself is certainly happy to keep the details of the B-21 a secret, including the price tag. Defense officials claim that knowing the exact cost of the B-21 could provide national opponents with important information regarding the aircraft’s capabilities. A low number would please the tax payers but would suggest that the new bomber possesses primarily old technology that didn’t require much in the way of expensive research and development. A high number could enrage the public and suggest the adoption of new technologies previously believed to be relegated to experimentation. By keeping the figure close to its chest, the Air Force believes it can keep the enemy guessing about what exactly the B-21 is capable of. Nonetheless, experts expect the total cost of the program to ring in at around $55 billion.
The B-21 Raider, which has appeared to the public only in a single artist’s rendering, is expected to be a sub-sonic heavy-payload bomber that’s capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional ordnance over extremely long distances.
Operating out of U.S. air bases, the B-21 will conduct deep penetration operations anywhere on the globe, relying on in-flight refueling and what is expected to be an exceptionally long range to get it to the fight and home again. Its design seems to borrow heavily from its predecessor, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, though the B-21’s stealth is expected to exceed the B-2’s in nearly every way, thanks to improvements in radar absorbent coating, digital design practices, and an improved engine design intended to limit infrared detection of the bomber’s propulsion systems.
Once in the air, the B-21 is expected to be the most advanced bomber on the planet, despite China’s recent claims that their forthcoming stealth bomber will be just as capable and stealthy. It is widely believed that China’s aforementioned H-20 stealth bomber will be a match for America’s dated B-2 Spirit at best, seeing as China has yet to demonstrate a real knack for home-grown air platforms or stealth technology as a whole.
Feature image of B-2 Spirit courtesy of the U.S. Air Force