Sending a signal to potential adversaries, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall announced on September 20 that Northrop Grumman has five B-21 Raider stealth bombers in final production. This comes at a time when the Air Force is increasing its bomber presence in Iceland and is working hard to maintain and grow its air superiority.
The B-21 Stealth Bomber in Production
News of the Air Force’s newest stealth bomber is scarce, owing to its super-secret nature. Initial reports had just two of the bombers in final production.
Designed to replace the B-1B Lancer and the B-2 Spirit, the Raider is expected to begin flight testing soon. Members of the 419th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB, CA, will take possession of the first B-21 when it is released to the Air Force. The 419th is the Air Force’s Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force, responsible for any and all new programs for the U.S.’ bomber fleet.
B-2 Spirits bombers recently deployed to Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, in a first for the stealth bomber community. Keflavik was an important WWII and Cold War base for the U.S., serving as a gateway to the northern Atlantic. Initially, the base served as a refueling point for aircraft traveling to and from Europe during WWII. When Iceland joined NATO after the war, it requested a U.S. military presence, and the Iceland Defense Force was born.
The U.S. operated the base as a watchpoint for Soviet forces. Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, such as the E-3 AWACS, rotated through, as well as fighters like the F-4 Phantom and, later, the F-15 Eagle. These aircraft, along with ground radar stations, actively watched the skies for Soviet bombers, intercepting them when needed. The defensive nature of the base remained unchanged, acting in a response rather than an engagement role. By 2006, however, the U.S. had effectively ended its mission in Iceland, with the 56th Rescue Group as the last unit leaving. With the deployment of the B-2 to Iceland, a new chapter in the European theater has opened.
Stealth Bomber Presence
B-2 bombers deployed in August of this year to train from the base for short-notice bomber taskings. The U.S. has ramped up activity on the base, pouring in $38 million worth of contracts to modernize the base. An increased fighter presence, coupled with Navy reconnaissance aircraft rotations and bomber presence, are all part of the American response to perceived Russian saber-rattling. Operating the stealth bombers from Iceland could pave the way for the B-21 to be a regular presence there.
Designed to be “the backbone of the Air Force bomber fleet,” the B-21 is expected to enter service sometime in the mid-2020s. Back in 2019, the Air Force announced that it planned to send the first operational B-21s to Ellsworth AFB, in South Dakota. Ellsworth is already home to the B-1B. Therefore, the existing space and facilities at the base made it an ideal candidate for basing the new Raider and training its crews. The B-1Bs will be phased out as the Raider comes online.
It’s About Sending a Message
The Air Force plans to field over 100 of the newest stealth bombers in an effort to consolidate bomber activities and reduce the strain on existing aging fleets. Sending the B-2 into Iceland on extended deployments could signal the start of another Cold War-style build-up.
Using the B-2 on a testing basis, the Air Force conducted “hot-pit” refueling in Iceland in 2019.
Hot-pit refueling is a kind of pit-stop refueling operation. The aircraft lands, taxis to a preset refueling point, and takes on fuel with engines still running to allow for quicker turn-around times. Additionally, during “hot-pit” refueling minor maintenance can be carried out, and the jet is turned and put back in the air in a fraction of the time of a full shut down.
The recent B-2 rotation into Iceland is setting a precedent. If stealth bombers can operate seamlessly from Iceland, putting the most technologically advanced, nuclear-capable, deep-penetration bomber right up close to Russian forces will send a strong message to the world.
It remains to be seen when and where the B-21 will operate. Publicly putting the current most advanced stealth bomber in the Atlantic is a strong foreshadowing for the stealth bomber force’s future.