As the United States Navy works to address looming concerns about the capability gap created by Chinese and Russian hypersonic capable anti-ship missiles, the solution to their problem may actually come from the U.S. Air Force.
Advanced anti-ship missiles capable of traveling at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (the “hypersonic” barrier) are too fast for America’s traditional defense apparatus to track and intercept consistently. With ranges that can exceed a thousand miles, these indefensible missiles create an area denial bubble that America’s fleet of aircraft carriers can’t penetrate without risking being sunk — and with only about 550 miles of operational range out of carrier based aircraft, that means the U.S.’s fleet Super Hornets and F-35s based on those carriers would find themselves unable to join the fight.
The Navy and Marine Corps are already working on a variety of projects that aim to offset this capability gap — but the best chance to level this new playing field is quietly being developed behind the closed doors of Northrop Grumman, where the B-21 Raider is beginning to take shape.
Little information has been released thus far about the forthcoming stealth bomber that is slated to replace both America’s legendary B-2 Spirit as well as the nation’s only super-sonic heavy payload bomber, the B-1B Lancer. Unlike other advanced aircraft to be developed in recent years like the F-22 and F-35, the B-21 program has progressed with little more leaking out to the media that some artist’s renderings of what the finished bomber will look like, and some broad strokes statements made by Defense officials as they tip toe around providing any concrete data.
One might be inclined to assume the program isn’t going well, then — why else would even Northrop be so tight lipped about their progress? Of course, there’s also another possibility: With the United States so keen to sell its 5th generation F-35 to every nation with a friendly disposition and disposable income, they may just want to keep the B-21s capabilities a bit closer to the vest.
What they have said about those capabilities, however, could point to the B-21 serving as the leading edge in a potential offensive against a nation equipped with advanced anti-ship platforms. In an Op-Ed published by The Hill and penned by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va, the chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, he discussed the publicly acknowledged capability set the B-21 is expected to offer.
“Not only does the B-21’s long-range strike capability allow us to shift our launch points onto U.S. soil — inherently decreasing the risk of a strike on a U.S.-manned airbase — but its stealth capacities will allow for it to penetrate high-threat areas undetected.” He wrote.
With global strike capabilities and advanced stealth technologies allowing the B-21 to operate within highly contested airspace, the B-21 could find itself tasked with taking out anti-ship missile platforms along an enemy shoreline as American carriers approach. Once the anti-ship defenses have been taken out, carrier battle groups to encroach further toward an opponent’s shores, which when combined with the Navy’s endeavors to extend the operational range of its aircraft, could return the upper hand to America’s military.
Despite the secrecy, the B-21 program was recently characterized as “largely on track” by Wittman. He did cite some “hiccups” with engine and wing development, but dismissed them as brief setbacks that have not created any lasting delays. If true, that would certainly set this new stealth program apart from recent endeavors with Lockheed Martin at the helm.
“I have been impressed with the viewpoint that Northrop has with this, with their willingness to address things in a very timely way to be on top of this,” Wittman told reporters last month. “It is refreshing to see they are tremendously serious about making this happen and that they are holding [everyone on the B-21 team] to this high standard.”
The new bomber is expected to enter operational service in the mid-2020s, and is expected to begin testing at Edwards Air Force Base soon.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force