Fog machines, short lenses, no iPhones: Managing the B-21′s rollout

Marcio Jose Sanchez

PALMDALE, Calif. — When it came time to roll out the Air Force’s new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, the line between public transparency and revealing too much information was barely visible to the naked eye.

“Down 2 inches,” a Northrop Grumman-jacketed security official firmly said to one of half a dozen press photographers, whose camera tripod slightly exceeded a 6-foot guideline.

“Up an inch, you’re too low,” another photographer was told a little later, as dusk turned to nighttime and natural light faded.

The unveiling of the Northrop Grumman-made bomber at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, on Dec. 2 was a tightly stage-managed event, one designed to conceal as much as reveal.

The Air Force set the security requirements for the ceremony to protect the technology on the Raider, and worked with Northrop Grumman — which organized the event — to ensure everyone knew the parameters. During the weeks leading up to the event, officials debated how much to show while maintaining the security to protect the bomber’s secrets from Chinese or Russian eyes.

The unveiling took place at a highly classified facility, one which is rarely visited by reporters. Uniformed security forces airmen and agents from the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations scanned the crowd. Visitors entered through full-height turnstile gates, and fences were topped with barbed wire to prevent intruders from climbing in.

It was a stark difference from the last such event, when the B-2 Spirit bomber was revealed at Plant 42 more than three decades ago.

‘Deterrence the American way’: The new B-21 bomber debuts

In November 1988, the Air Force debuted the B-2 in full daylight, and the bomber was towed completely out of its hangar. This somewhat backfired, when Aviation Week rented a Cessna and flew over the ceremony to snap pictures. Aviation Week’s picture showed the B-2 from above for the first time, including its trailing edge — an angle the Air Force hadn’t planned on revealing until much later, and that reportedly caused much consternation among Edwards Air Force Base officials working on the program.

But on Friday, the ceremony didn’t begin until dusk, and the bomber wasn’t shown until the sun had completely set. When it was shown, it was illuminated with blue light and some artificial fog. And this time, the B-21 didn’t come all the way out of the hangar.

The tableau of the nighttime reveal wasn’t just dramatic showmanship, Heritage Foundation expert John Venable told Defense News Monday. It also may have served to obscure classified details, he said.

When the Air Force released another photograph of the B-21 later on Friday, it clearly showed the bomber’s skin is a lighter shade of silvery-gray. This wasn’t immediately apparent during the ceremony, as the lighting cast much of the bomber, particularly its underside, in shadow.

The B-21 was also towed to 75 feet from the photography riser, and its back — including details such as its engines and trailing edge — could not be seen.

Venable expects that level of secrecy to continue for the foreseeable future. And given the level of classification involved with the B-21 and sensitivity of the program, he said, that’s a good thing.

“They’re going to keep it under wraps as long as they can,” Venable said. “My imagination says they will only fly it at night [and] only roll it out of hangars at night, so that it becomes that much harder for you to get an idea [of what is on the plane]. You can tell a lot by the wing line, by the inlets, by a bunch of other things.”

Members of the press had to follow strict guidelines about what equipment they could bring into which sections of the highly classified facility.

For example, iPhones, smart watches and other mobile devices — with their high-resolution, zoomable cameras, video recording, and transmission capabilities — were not allowed anywhere near the Raider.

Before reporters were let into the hangar where the cloaked Raider sat for a pre-ceremony briefing with Air Force and Northrop Grumman officials, they had to turn off their devices and hand them to Northrop Grumman employees, who then locked them into secure Yondr pouches. The devices were returned after the rollout, outside of the ceremony area.

And press photographers were given a list of requirements for the equipment they could use to shoot the bomber. If anyone tried to dodge these rules, they were warned, their cameras would be held by Northrop Grumman until the Air Force could conduct a security review of the images.

An uncompromising limit on camera lens size was set at 50 millimeters, which meant no zooming in on the plane. The photography riser was placed right in the middle, looking straight down the B-21′s nose, without views of its side or at an angle. Cameras had to be mounted on tripods at exactly 6 feet — no higher, no lower. With the 3-foot-tall riser, that placed the cameras at 9 feet, about level with the edge where the upper and lower parts of the bomber joined.

It sometimes made for a tense scene on the riser, as one photographer of a slightly shorter stature protested he wouldn’t be able to see through the viewfinder if the camera was at 6 feet.

Venable said the height requirement was likely set so no images were taken that could reveal sensitive aspects of the bomber’s top or bottom surfaces.

“If I was to speculate, it’s that there are apertures and there are things that are invisible at the nine-foot line that you would be able to actually read into” with a higher or lower view, Venable said. “This airplane is supposed to be so revolutionary that it’s got to have something that’s worth masking. The bottom and the top and the back of the airplane are going to reveal a lot.”

And at the end of the ceremony, Northrop Grumman chief executive Kathy Warden hinted this would be the public’s last glimpse of the Raider for a while — at least until its first flight next year.

“The next time you see this plane, it’ll be in the air,” Warden said.

Then as pulsing music played, the lights dimmed, the bomber returned to its hangar, and the doors slid shut, once again leaving the B-21 in the shadows.