The music of the orchestra increased, and the bomber was pulled out of the hangar. The sheet fell away to reveal a flying wing similar to the B-2 – the Air Force’s last bomber, unveiled in 1988 – but slightly smaller, its inlets more awake to the body of the jet, probably for more stealth.
“America’s defense will always be rooted in the prevention of conflict,” Austin said moments later. “Thus, we are once again making it clear to any potential adversary: the risks and costs of an attack far outweigh any potential gains.”
A crowd of Northrop employees who worked on the B-21 program chanted “USA, USA” at the end of the ceremony.
The B-21 has been shrouded in secrecy since the Air Force chose Northrop over Boeing to build the plane in a highly contested competition in 2015. Unlike other classified programs, the Pentagon openly admits that the new bomber there – but that’s about it. The Air Force has kept most of the information about the plane secret so that potential attackers such as China and Russia cannot steal its design or develop ways to launch it.
What is known to the public is that the B-21 is built with a new generation of stealth technology designed to evade the most sophisticated radars. Austin said that “50 years of advances in low detection technology have gone into this aircraft.”
“Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will have difficulty detecting a B-21 in the sky,” he said.
The bomber is designed to penetrate enemy air defenses and strike targets anywhere in the world — something only about 10 percent of the current bomber force can do, according to Northrop. The B-21 is more effective than any other long-range bomber in the world, Austin said, noting that “it doesn’t need to be based in theater, and it won’t need logistical support to keep any target at risk. .”
“It’s important to have a capability like this as a deterrent and to be able, if necessary, to prevail in a conflict,” said a senior Department of Defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. before the ceremony.
This will be especially important if the US comes into conflict with China, which has greatly increased its military capabilities over the past decade. For example, if China decides to invade Taiwan – a scenario that the Pentagon estimates could happen by 2027 – the B-21 would be able to respond on short notice, said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments.
The B-21 is “China’s deterrent bomber,” Gunzinger said, speaking on a panel at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in September.
The Air Force plans to purchase at least 100 B-21s to replace its fleet of B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers, with the first aircraft deliveries expected in the mid-2020s. It will be capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons and will have the ability to be manned or unmanned, Northrop says.
By carrying a range of munitions “with amazing accuracy” the B-21 will allow it to support operations across the “entire spectrum” of warfare, Austin said, similar to the Air Force’s current bombers. The B-52, for example, has dropped conventional bombs on Islamic State targets in Syria and can also carry nuclear weapons should such a conflict arise.
The Raider is “versatile,” Austin said. “It can handle anything from intel gathering to battle management to integration with our allies and partners.”
The B-21 was designed with an “open architecture,” which allows the Air Force to more easily swap out older systems for new technologies. This approach was taken to help prevent the bomber, originally designed nearly a decade ago, from becoming obsolete amid rapid technological advances.
“So as the United States continues to innovate, this bomber will be able to defend our country with new weapons that haven’t even been created yet,” Austin said.
Unlike many recent military aircraft programs, most notably the controversial F-35 fighter jet, the new bomber stayed on cost and on schedule. The Air Force has set a $500 million ceiling for the unit cage in 2010 dollars; in 2019, Northrop said the Air Force target cost would be just over $600 million, adjusted for inflation.
In the coming months, the B-21 will undergo additional testing to ensure it is ready for its first flight, which Northrop said will likely happen in 2023.
The Raider is named for the Doolittle Raiders, known for their surprise attack on Japan during World War II. To choose the name, Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force and then the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein called submissions out and chose from a list thousands of options which ranged from the ridiculous – “Sneaky McBombFace” – to the ominous – “Black Death.”
The first new B-21s will be based out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, where formal training will also take place. Maintenance and sustainment will be handled at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, while testing and evaluation is being done at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Other prime contractors include Pratt & Whitney, which supplies the engine; BAE Systems, which is most likely building the electronic warfare system; GKN Aerospace; Janicki Industries; Orbital ATK, acquired by Northrop; Rockwell Collins; and Spirit AeroSystems, according to Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.