USAF prepares to unveil the B-21 strategic bomber

Northrop Grumman will roll out the B-21 Raider on December 2, 2022, the first new bomber aircraft designed in the United States since the Cold War.  

In development since 2015, the B-21 is intended to replace the B-1 Lancer, the B-2 Spirit, and possibly the B-52 Stratofortress, the three current strategic bombers operated by the United States Air Force (USAF).  

The rollout has been highly anticipated with neither Northrop Grumman nor the USAF unveiling any images of the B-21. Only low-detail renders have been released, and even those seem to differ regarding some of the details.

So, what do we know about the upcoming jet touted to be the world’s most advanced aircraft? AeroTime takes a closer look. 

Not just an upgrade  

On the surface the B-21 looks a lot like the B-2, the iconic stealth bomber unveiled almost three and a half decades ago. However, the shape is the only thing linking the B-21 and its predecessor.  

The Raider is a completely new system that uses a smaller and stealthier airframe, Pratt & Whitney F135 engines (the same type mounted on the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet) and a number of developments that were simply unavailable back when the B-2 was designed, such as all-new stealth coating.  

The B-21’s most talked about feature, however, is its networking capability. According to Northrop Grumman, it is a “sixth-generation aircraft”, a buzzword that does not really mean anything, but links the Raider with sixth-generation fighter jets.  

A unique feature of those jets is their ability to work as part of a team alongside an array of unmanned assets, essentially commanding a fleet of drones that could perform almost any required task.

This, coupled with an array of sensors and other high-tech features, means that possible uses of the B-21 go far beyond its role as a bomber.  

According to Northrop Grumman, the jet could perform intelligence gathering missions and act as a battle command center. Additionally, a number of reports have mentioned that the aircraft could perform as an interceptor, presumably by carrying a collection of long-range missiles or drones capable of carrying those missiles. A ‘missile truck’ approach to fighter design, eschewing maneuverability and speed for stealth, sensors, and networking, has long been debated in the aviation world, and it seems the B-21 could deliver in this regard.  

Almost combat-ready  

As far as recently developed aircraft go, the B-21 is extremely unusual both in terms of its role and its development.  

Firstly, the entire project came in under budget, not exceeding the $25.1 billion intended for its development. This is certainly unique, especially when compared with the B-2, which famously ended up costing more than a billion per aircraft, or the F-35, UASF’s latest fighter jet, which became the world’s most expensive fighter ever built, despite being intended as a cheaper counterpart to the F-22.  

Furthermore, the B-21 is almost on time. While the idea of developing a new strategic bomber was first conceived back in the early 2000s before being rejected, the timeline set after 2015, when development began, has been closely followed.  

However, the project still experienced a few hiccups. Originally intended to fly in 2021, the launch was delayed to 2022 and then to 2023. Northrop Grumman said delays to the maiden flight will not affect the aircraft’s production, which is hard to believe, but could be true.   

The company claims no less than six pre-production aircraft are in various stages of assembly, and some of have already been involved in ground testing. However, the B-21 is also one of the first aircraft to be designed with a heavy dose of digital engineering and associated practices. This means that building and testing physical aircraft is just the tip of the iceberg, and the B-21 has already racked up countless virtual flight hours in various scenarios and in a number of configurations.  

As president of Northrop Grumman’s Aeronautics Systems unit Tom Jones recently revealed, the first six bombers will not be prototypes in the usual sense. Instead, they are intended to be “production representative”. That is, nearly identical to the final version of the aircraft.  

Testing that would usually be performed on a prototype has already been done with the B-21’s digital twin, a simulated version of the aircraft in a virtual environment. Northrop Grumman and the USAF already know how the aircraft will handle, even though it is yet to take off.  

A contested environment  

Back when the B-2 was first unveiled 34 years ago, there was nothing like it known to the public. The F-117, the only other mass-produced stealth aircraft, remained secret for several more years, and the sleek fuselage of the Spirit looked like something from the pages of science fiction. It bore almost no resemblance to any other aircraft operated in the US or elsewhere.  

Both China and Russia have strategic stealth bombers in development, both said to be as superior to the original B-2.  While comparing upcoming aircraft to the B-2, which is a third of a century old may seem irrelevant, China’s Xian H-20 and Russia’s Tupolev PAK DA should certainly not be dismissed. Both countries have demonstrated an ability to manufacture high-performance stealth aircraft and hinted at being capable of fielding sophisticated, highly networked systems.  

There is little firm information on when, and whether, the PAK DA will materialize. Meanwhile, if the reports are to be believed, the H-20 is almost ready. This puts even more strain on the USAF to field its own next-generation bomber as soon as possible, and in quantities sufficient to challenge China in its home region.  

The current plan is for the B-21 to reach initial operational capability by 2030 and field at least 100 aircraft of this type, with a possibility to then order up to twice as many.   

But will the Raider be as successful as these plans suggest? And will it live up to expectations?   

The rollout on December 2 could well be the first step in answering these questions. 

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