Much About the Air Force’s New B-21 Bomber Remains Unanswered Following Reveal

The Air Force rolled out its new B-21 Raider on Dec. 2 in a nighttime ceremony contrived to keep many details of the flying wing aircraft difficult to see but apparently timed to coincide with a new report on Chinese military capabilities. Senior defense leaders speaking at the event praised the new bomber as the cornerstone of American deterrence capability for decades to come.

The event did not provide much new information about the B-21’s capabilities, though; no further programmatic details, such as the planned production rate, or even how many engines power the bomber, were disclosed.

Aircraft 00001 was rolled forward, still covered with a tarpaulin, from a hangar at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant before dignitaries, the press, and some 2,000 workers. Applause erupted when the tarpaulin was removed, revealing an aircraft looking somewhat like the B-2 bomber but also like a flying saucer, with a deep keel and eccentric windows. A flyover of B-52, B-1B, and B-2 bombers in the darkening skies over the plant preceded the rollout.  

The Air Force and Northrop Grumman revealed the first B-21 Raider bomber in a ceremony Dec. 2, 2022. Screenshot photo.

“This is a proud day for the Air Force and the country,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said at the ceremony. He thanked Northrop Grumman and its employees for “getting this big job done” and getting the B-21 ready for its test flight phase.

“The B-21 looks imposing … but what’s under the frame and space-age coatings is even more impressive,” Austin said. The B-21 will have longer range than any other bomber, he said, and “it won’t need to be based in theater. It won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk.” He added that “50 years of low-observability technology have gone into this aircraft. And even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect the B-21.”

The new bomber’s “edge will last for decades to come,” he said. The B-21 is emblematic of “America’s advantages” of “innovation … and the spirit of adventure.”

The bomber will also be a powerhouse collector of information that will be shared with the entire force, Austin said.

Though the B-21 is supposed to be smaller than the B-2, its wingspan seemed nearly as wide, though with a possibly different angle of sweep than that of the B-2. The “fuselage” seemed to have a deeper keel than that of the B-2. No dimensions of the aircraft were offered.

A senior Northrop Grumman official said the B-21 will be “a lot stealthier” than the B-2 and feature such improved maintainability and reliability that it will be able to fly in full stealth mode “every day.” The B-2, by contrast, requires many hundreds of man-hours of maintenance just for its low-observable surfaces between missions. The B-21 improves on the B-2 by eliminating the “special tape” that covers its seams and panel lines, the official said.  The new material—which may be back-fitted to the B-2—is far more “resilient,” he said.

The key features revealed in the event were the slender air intakes, which scarcely rose above the blended-wing aircraft’s upper surface. The bomb bays were closed, and the tail section of the airplane was not visible from the viewing area. Clearly evident, though, was how much smoother the B-21 is than its elder stealth stablemate.  

The aircraft was bathed in blue light, and attendees faced spotlights—again, making viewing of the aircraft a challenge. Members of the press, on a center riser before the airplane, were limited to small lenses for photos, and only from directly in front of the aircraft.

The B-21’s nose gear door bore the serial number 00001, and Air Force badges were stenciled behind the cockpit in low-visibility paint. The “tail code” of Edwards Air Force Base was painted on the B-21’s main landing gear doors.

The prominent “beak” of the B-2 is also a feature on the B-21, but the B-21’s is longer and flatter.

Air Force officials have previously said the unusual, upturned side windows on the B-21 will help with air refueling operations.

Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., speaking with the press before the rollout, described the B-21 as a “high cycle aircraft,” meaning it will be able to fly sorties “at great frequency.” He said its digital design will allow a speedier test program than is usual, because not as many live-fly test points will be needed.

Also attending the unveiling were chiefs of the Royal Australian Air Force Air Marshal Robert Chipman and the U.K. Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston.

Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter emphasized that the B-21, designed in an open-architecture manner, will be able to “adapt over time … as the mission changes and the threat evolves … and do it in an affordable way.” He said the test fleet will consist of the first six aircraft, which the Air Force has previously said will be usable combat assets after the test program is complete.  

Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden said the company evaluated “thousands of designs” for the B-21 and ended up with the flying wing as the best approach to the required degree of stealth and range “and [to] fit within the cost envelope” required. The aircraft will be capable of “rapid … technology insertions” to improve its capabilities.

Hunter said the B-21’s level of stealth was “an essential feature” in selecting Northrop Grumman in 2015 to build the aircraft.

Officials did not modify the longstanding goal of “at least 100” B-21s to be produced. Brown said “100 is the number we’re shooting for” as the B-21 inventory, although other service leaders have quoted figures of 150 or more.

Although the B-21 was initially touted as an “optionally manned,” Hunter said the manned version is “clearly the focus.”

The B-21 Raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony Dec. 2, 2022, in Palmdale, Calif. Air Force photo.

The B-21 will be both a conventional and nuclear weapons delivery platform. It will carry nuclear gravity bombs as well as the future Long-Range Stand Off missile.     

Senior defense officials at the event said the rollout’s timing the same week as a new report on Chinese military power released by the Pentagon was, in the words of one, “maybe not a coincidence.” In his speech, Austin made several references to the B-21’s direct connection to the new National Defense Strategy, which identifies China as America’s pacing military threat. Austin said the B-21 will be a “formidable” deterrent and makes plain “the risk and cost of aggression” against the U.S. and its allies and partners.  

“We’re powered by the boldness of an open mind and the confidence of an open society,” Austin said. “And that’s a strategic advantage that no competitor can match.” Pointing to the B-21, Austin said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is deterrence, the American way.”

The rollout sparks some deja-vu as it takes place at the same facility where Northrop rolled out the B-2, the first stealth bomber, in a ceremony 34 years ago last month. The aircraft bear a strong family resemblance; both are large flying-wings, and have a clear lineage from the YB-35 and YB-49 flying wing bomber prototypes designed by Jack Northrop himself some 70 years ago.

B-21 to Be Capable of Holding at Risk Any Target on Earth

Northrop Grumman officials have in recent days called the B-21 the “first sixth-generation” combat aircraft.

There is no set definition of what a “sixth-generation” combat aircraft is, though. Fifth generation has come to be regarded as aircraft possessing stealth characteristics and sensor fusion to achieve unprecedented situational awareness of the battle space. Some attributes of “sixth generation” may be the ability to be “optionally manned”—a feature the B-21 is supposed to have—even better sensors, sharply improved stealth, and potentially, capability to use directed-energy weapons such as lasers or high-powered microwave beams.

The B-21 is the centerpiece of a “family of systems” that the Air Force and Northrop have said will include external support platforms and enablers. These have not been described in detail but are likely to include jam-resistant satellite communications and the possible use of bomber-launched decoys, radar jammers, or intelligence-collection vehicles. 

Although originally expected to be named the B-3, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James decided in 2016 to name the bomber the B-21, to reflect its status as the Air Force’s principal bomber for the 21st century. It was named the Raider to honor the Doolittle Raiders of World War II, who carried the first counterstrike against the Japanese home islands after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The innovative mission—flown by Army bombers off Navy carriers to extend their reach—surprised the Japanese, who believed their home territory to be too far removed from the U.S. to be under threat.

Similarly, the B-21 is to be capable of holding at risk any target on the face of the Earth. Its advanced stealth and electronic warfare systems are designed to enable it to penetrate the most sophisticated air defenses any nation can muster. It is also expected to be able to persist in enemy territory, collecting information and providing it to other strikers.

The B-21 grew out of technologies Northrop Grumman continued to develop after the B-2 was terminated at just 20 (later 21) aircraft. It was halted due to the double whammy of the end of the Cold War and rising unit costs as the planned buy of the B-2 was whittled down by Congress. Initially, some 132 B-2s were planned to be built, and Northrop Grumman had been contracted to tool its facilities to build the aircraft at scale and a rapid pace, but the diminishing Russian threat prompted Congress to stop funding new B-2s in 1997.

Soon after, the Air Force was instructed to pursue a new program, dubbed the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB), or “2018 bomber.” Various bomber roadmaps held that a 2018 in-service date was necessary, both to begin replacing aging B-1 and B-52 bombers and to address worsening threats. Northrop Grumman was put under contract to develop NGB technologies, both to leverage what it had learned in creating the B-2 as well as to develop improved stealth capabilities for that aircraft, which have been applied during various upgrades since. These include improved stealth surface treatments, more efficient and repeatable ways of applying the treatments, and electronic warfare upgrades.

In 2008, Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed a partnership to compete for the NGB, and in the following months, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon was also contemplating an unmanned version of the new bomber. (Artwork of a notional Boeing-Lockheed NGB—a flying wing—bore a striking resemblance to the eventual B-21.)   

In 2009, however, Gates canceled the NGB, saying its planned capabilities had become “exquisite,” meaning the aircraft as then envisioned would be too packed with costly capability to be affordable in numbers. The Northrop Grumman and Boeing-Lockheed Martin teams were told to stop working on the NGB aircraft, and the Air Force was directed to start over and pursue a new bomber that would be more affordable. The 2018 in-service target date was dropped.

The new program was dubbed the Long-Range Strike aircraft, and equal among its performance requirements was the need to keep its unit cost under $550 million in 2010 dollars.

In 2015, the Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman for what was then called the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B. William LaPlante, then Air Force acquisition executive and now undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said at the contract award announcement that the LRS-B would have to come in at $515 million a copy “in 2010 dollars when procuring 100 aircraft.”

Rather than tool for production of dozens of aircraft a year, costs would be reduced by tooling only for about 15 airplanes per year, Air Force officials said at the time. LaPlante said the program would not experience any steep ramp-ups in production, which tend to be disrupted in years when budget cuts must be found. The LRS-B schedule, he said, would be “resilient” because of its modest and consistent production pace.

Air Force officials also said the first aircraft would be available for operational use in the “mid-2020s.”

Prior to contract award, the Air Force had spent nearly $2 billion on risk-reduction efforts, and LaPlante announced that the engineering, manufacturing, and development contract would cost $21.4 billion in 2010 dollars.

He said the EMD contract would be a “cost-reimbursable type,” with incentives for Northrop Grumman to meet the planned cost schedule and “reduced profit if they do not control” those factors.

Although little is known about the B-21’s specific capabilities, it has earned praise from members of Congress read into the program, including House Armed Services chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has called it one of the Pentagon’s “best run” programs.

To keep the program secret, reduce the oversight chain, and pursue an overall lean approach to the B-21’s development, it has been managed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, with direct reporting to the senior Air Force leadership.

To prevent costly redesigns, the B-21’s requirements can be changed only at the order of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and all of the Chiefs who have presided over the program say they have not altered its goals. To keep the B-21 capable against the current and evolving threat, however, the bomber has been designed with an “open architecture” to allow modular change-outs of sensors, weapons, communications, and other attributes. In the future, other contractors will be able to compete to upgrade these elements of the B-21.

Although it has divulged little about the bomber’s progress, the Air Force has said the B-21 is meeting expectations and living within the cost limits imposed at its outset.

The B-21’s first flight is expected in mid-2023. It is being revealed now because it has reached the stage where outside activities—such as engine runs and taxi tests—will soon begin, and the aircraft will be exposed to public view.

In a statement released by Northrop Grumman ahead of the rollout, it said it’s applying “continuously advancing technology [and] employing new manufacturing techniques and materials to ensure the B-21 will defeat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face.” The aircraft benefits from more than three decades of strike and stealth technology, the company said. Among Northrop Grumman’s other stealth programs are the B-2 Spirit bomber, the YF-23 fighter prototype, the Tacit Blue stealth demonstrator, the AGM-137 Tri-Service Standoff Missile, and numerous other presumed classified programs.

Northrop’s RQ-4 Global Hawk family of unmanned, high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft are gradually being phased out of USAF service, but there is strong evidence they are being superseded by another Northrop Grumman stealth platform called the RQ-180, said to bear a strong resemblance to the B-21.

The company also revealed that it has created a “digital twin” of the B-21, to facilitate and speed any changes made to the platform in the digital world before applying them to physical aircraft.   

Northrop also said that, because of the B-21’s “open architecture,” it will forego a common pattern on other programs: the block upgrade.

“To meet the evolving threat environment, the B-21 has been designed from day one for rapid upgradeability,” the company said. “Unlike earlier generation aircraft, the B-21 will not undergo block upgrades. New technology, capabilities and weapons will be seamlessly incorporated through agile software upgrades and built-in hardware flexibility. This will ensure the B-21 Raider can continuously meet the evolving threat head on for decades to come.”