January 29, 2023

WASHINGTON – America’s newest stealth nuclear bomber is making its public debut after years of secret development and as part of the Pentagon’s response to growing concerns about a future conflict with China.

The B-21 Raider is the first new American bomber aircraft in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is classified. Only artist renderings of the fighter jet have been released ahead of its unveiling Friday at an Air Force facility in Palmdale, Calif. These few images show that the Raider resembles the black stealth nuclear bomber it will eventually replace, the B-2 Spirit.

The bomber is part of the Pentagon’s effort to modernize all three pillars of its nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, spanning from the counterterrorism campaigns of recent decades to China’s rapid military modernization relocate

China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its advances in hypersonic, cyber warfare, space capabilities and other areas represent “the most momentous and systemic challenge to U.S. national security and the free and open international system ‘ the Pentagon said in its annual China report this week.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other invited guests will be present on Friday to witness the bomber’s public unveiling.

“We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to face much more complicated threats, like the threats we fear we might one day expect from China and Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, the Secretary of the Air Force, as the Raider contract was announced in 2015. “The B-21 is more survivable and able to take on these much more difficult threats.”

While the Raider may resemble the B-2, the similarities stop once you get inside, said Kathy Warden, executive director of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the Raider.

“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, as the technology has progressed so far in terms of processing power that we can now embed it into the B-21’s software,” said Warden.

Other changes likely include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber more difficult to detect, new ways to control electronic emissions so the bomber can spoof enemy radars and masquerade as another object, and the use of new propulsion technologies, they said several defense analysts.

In a fact sheet, Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia, said it is using “new manufacturing techniques and materials to ensure the B-21 defeats the anti-entry and range denial systems it will face.”

Warden could not discuss the specifics of these technologies, but said the bomber will be more stealthy.

“When we say low observability, that’s incredibly low observability,” Warden said. “You’ll hear it, but you really won’t see it.”

Six B-21 Raiders are in production; The Air Force plans to build 100, capable of using either nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and operating with or without a human crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the relatively rapid development of the Raider: the bomber went from contract to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have lasted for decades.

The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force previously priced the purchase of 100 aircraft at an average of $550 million each in 2010 — about $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much the Air Force actually spends.

The fact that the price isn’t public worries government watchdogs.

“It could be a big challenge for us to do our normal analysis of a large program like this,” said Dan Grazier, senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s easy to say the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Real problems are only discovered when one of these programs enters the actual test phase. And that’s where schedules really start to slip and costs really start to go up.”

The Raider will not make its maiden flight before 2023. However, Northrop Grumman has tested the Raider’s performance using advanced computers, Warden said, using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one to be unveiled.

The B-2 was also intended to be a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force ultimately built only 21 of these, due to cost overruns and a changing security environment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Due to the aging bomber’s significant maintenance needs, few are ready to fly on any given day, said Todd Harrison, aerospace specialist and managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights.

The B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the 1942 Doolittle raid over Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Warden said.

In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew 44 hours straight after the 9/11 attacks to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan. But the B-2 often makes long round trips because there are few hangars in the world that can accommodate its span. This limits where B-2s can land for required post-flight maintenance. And the hangars had to be air-conditioned – since the Spirit’s windows don’t open, hotter climates can heat the cockpit electronics.

The new raider will also get new hangars to accommodate the bomber’s size and complexity, Warden said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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