America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber debuted Friday after years of secret development and is part of the Pentagon’s response to growing concerns about a future conflict. cross with China.
The B-21 Raider is the first new American bomber in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is classified.
As night fell on Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, the public got a glimpse of the Raider for the first time in a tightly controlled ceremony. It began with an overpass of three bombers still in service: B-52 Stratofortress, B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit. Then the hangar doors slowly opened and the B-21 was partially towed out of the building.
“This is not just another plane,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “It embodies America’s determination to defend the republic we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s effort to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched nuclear warheads, as it moves from counterterrorism campaigns in recent decades to responding to China’s rapid military modernization.
The Pentagon says China is on track to possess 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its achievements in hypersonic weapons, cyberwarfare and space capabilities present a “systemic challenge” and most consequential for the national security of the United States and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said this week. their annual China report.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st Century that would allow us to deal with much more complex threats, such as those that we feared we would one day be faced from China, Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force when the Raider Contract was announced in 2015.
Kathy Warden, chief executive officer of Northrop Grumman Corp., which is building the bomber, said: “While the Raider may resemble the B-2, once you get inside, the similarities stop. again.
“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of computing power that we can now embed it in the B-21’s software,” Warden said. .
Austin said other changes include advanced materials used in the coating to make bombers harder to detect.
“Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect B-21s in the sky.”
Some defense analysts say other advances could include new ways to control electronic emissions, so bombers can spoof enemy radar and disguise themselves as an object. other bodies, while also using new propulsion technologies.
“The visibility is extremely low,” said Warden. “You’ll hear it, but you really won’t see it.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 aircraft that can deploy nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and can be used with or without crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the Raider’s relatively rapid growth: The bomber went from contract award to launch in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have taken decades.
The cost of the bomber is unknown. The Air Force had previously put an average price of $550 million each in 2010 dollars — about $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much was actually spent. The total will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“We’ll soon be flying this aircraft, testing it, and then putting it into production. And we’re going to build up the bomber force in numbers that are appropriate for the strategic environment ahead,” Austin said. .
Undisclosed costs trouble government watchdogs.
Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Government Oversight Project, said: “It can be a big challenge for us to do the conventional analysis of such a large program. this. “It’s easy to say that the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs goes into the actual testing phase that real problems are discovered. ” That’s when schedules start to slip and costs go up, he said.
The B-2 was also envisioned as a fleet of more than 100, but the Air Force only built 21 due to cost overruns and the changing security environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fewer than that are ready to fly on any given day due to the substantial maintenance needs of aging bombers.
Warden said the B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, would be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase range, Warden said. It won’t make its first flight until 2023. However, Warden said Northrop Grumman used advanced computers to test the bomber’s performance using a digital replica, a virtual copy of the one published Friday.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota will host the bomber’s first squadron and training program, though bombers are also expected to be stationed at bases in Texas and Missouri.
US Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, led the state’s bid to host the bomber program. In a statement, he called it “the most advanced weapon system ever developed by our country to protect ourselves and our allies.”
Northrop Grumman has also incorporated maintenance lessons learned from the B-2, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record by flying for 44 hours to drop the first bombs on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. The B-2 often performs long round-trip missions because there are few hangars globally that can accommodate its wingspan, which limits where it can land for maintenance. The hangars also had to be air-conditioned because Spirit’s windows wouldn’t open and the hot climate could damage the electronics in the cockpit.
Warden says the new Raider will also feature new hangars to match its size and complexity.
With the Raider’s extended range, however, “it won’t need to be in a theater,” says Austin. “It wouldn’t need logistical support to keep any targets at risk.”
One last notable difference is in the first launch. While both made their public debut in Palmdale, the B-2 was released to the open air in 1988 to much public interest. With advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider is only partially exposed, keeping its propulsion system and sensitive sensors under the hangar and protected from eyes above.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”