The U.S. Air Force revealed the new B-21 Raider bomber to the public for the first time on December 2.
The B-21 Raider has been in development for about seven years and will replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers.
The Raider will carry both conventional and nuclear weapons into combat.
The U.S. Air Force unveiled the B-21 Raider bomber on December 2—the first new bomber to join the service since 1988. The bat-winged bomber is smaller but more capable than its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, and the first aircraft will enter service later this decade. The B-21 will replace older platforms and eventually become the mainstay of the U.S. bomber fleet.
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The first B-21 Raider was unveiled at Plant 42, the U.S. Air Force’s advanced aircraft research and development facility in Palmdale, California. The B-21 is built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which also built its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit. The two aircraft are similar in appearance, with large bat-like wings, a lack of a tail section, a smooth, featureless exterior, and a small, darkened cockpit in the nose.
Kathy Warden, CEO and president of Northrop Grumman, calls the B-21 “a bomber like no other.”
The Air Force describes the B-21 as a long-range, highly survivable, penetrating strike stealth bomber. Northrop Grumman calls it a “sixth-generation” aircraft, the latest in several generations of armed jets dating back to the end of World War II. The F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and China’s J-20 fighter are the only operational fifth-generation fighters in the world, so a sixth-generation aircraft is quite a leap. The B-21 is the first sixth-generation aircraft built anywhere in the world.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin thanked the Northrop Grumman employees who worked on the B-21, noting that they came in “every day” during the Covid-19 pandemic. (The bomber is only a few months behind schedule, and not because of pandemic restrictions.) Austin said the aircraft would have unmatched range, and its stealth meant “even the most sophisticated air defenses” will struggle to target it. He also alluded to the plane’s “open architecture,” allowing it to be updated with the latest weapons and electronics as time goes on.
“This is deterrence the American way,” Austin told an audience of military personnel, government officials, Northrop Grumman employees, and media. “This is the first bomber of the 21st century.”
Illuminated by blue stage lights, the B-21 Raider’s nighttime unveiling was likely prompted by a famous incident in 1988, when Aviation Week & Space Technology editor Michael Dornheim rented a Cessna 172 plane on the B-2’s unveiling day and flew overhead, while photographer Bill Hartenstein took revealing photos of the new bomber. The Air Force had rolled the aircraft out of a hangar into the daytime sunlight but only gave media and assembled officials a direct frontal view of the aircraft. Dornheim, from his vantage point above, was able to get a full view of the B-2, which the Air Force and Northrop Grumman had wanted to obscure as long as possible.
Conventional weapons the B-21 will likely carry include the GBU-53B Stormbreaker all-weather standoff bomb, Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), and Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Hypersonic air to ground weapons are almost certain, but the Air Force hasn’t explicitly mentioned them yet. Nuclear weapons the B-21 will likely carry include the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear-tipped cruise missile.
The Air Force plans to build at least 100 B-21s, to replace 20 B-2 Spirit and 45 B-1B Lancer bombers. That number is likely to go up, given China’s ongoing nuclear weapons buildup, the need for long range platforms in an Asia/Pacific conventional war scenario, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Air Force’s fleet of 76 B-52H Stratofortresses, built between 1961 and 1966, will serve alongside the B-21 into the 2040s and likely beyond.
Northrop Grumman has six B-21s built or currently under construction. At least one B-21 is undergoing ground tests, including powering up its electronics and testing systems that don’t require the bomber to be airborne. First flight is tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2023.
The B-21 Raider was named after Doolittle’s Raiders, a force of sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers that mounted a surprise attack on Japan, in April 1942, just five months after Pearl Harbor. The force, led by legendary Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, struck targets across central Japan, and flew on to land at emergency airfields in China.
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