Thursday, September 29, 2022

America’s $200B Program: USAF Says Its B-21 Stealth Bomber ‘Roaring’ To Fly; First Raider Moved To New Hangar

The B-21 ‘Raider’, a stealth bomber being built by Northrop Grumman, is seen as the successor to the US’ B-1 and B-2 ‘Spirit’ warplanes. The construction of the sixth Raider (out of an expected 100 at least) began recently.

The Pentagon declared its intention to sign a contract for a new Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) with Northrop Grumman in October 2015. The LRS-B was later christened the B-21 “Raider” in honor of the Doolittle Raiders of World War II.

The first B-21 is has been assembled and has moved to a calibration facility, one of the last steps before powering systems and making final checks ahead of the first flight, Rapid Capabilities Office Director Randall Walden reported.

On the sidelines of the AFA Warfare Symposium in Orlando,  Walden noted that “we’ve taken the first one out” of the production facility. “It’s got landing gear. … It’s got wheels on it. … It’s got the wings on it. It really looks like a bomber,” Walden said. Six B-21s are now under construction at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., facility, he said.

The Department of Defense wants to acquire at least 100 B-21s, which would initially replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers. There is also a possibility to phase out B-52 Stratofortress long-range bomber in the future.

The Raider’s design was prepared around three specific capabilities. First, it required a large and flexible payload bay to provide the capability of carrying a full range of current and future armament.

Northrop Grumman NGAD
Concept of B-21 Raider

Secondly, it would need a big range, and lastly, the projected average procurement unit cost should not exceed $550 million per plane in FY2010 dollars. The last requirement was announced publicly to encourage competing manufacturers to constrain their designs.

While the US Air Force has released concept images of the bomber, its specific design is still classified.

Planned Features

A report by a Congressional Research Committee had noted that the first B-21s would be manned and an uncrewed variant could be launched a few years after initial operational capability (IOC). The nuclear qualification will also take roughly two years after IOC.

While there has been no mention of the desired speed, the combination of long-range, a large payload, and cost constraints suggest that the B-21 will be subsonic. Details about the Raider’s size, stealth, structure, and onboard sensors are still under wraps.

The B-21’s engines are closer to the wing root, positioned in the juncture between wing and fuselage. The Raider’s engine air intakes are angled and the aircraft has overwing exhausts to veil the infrared signature of the four engines.

Northrup Grumman officials have referred to the B-21 as a significant improvement over the B-2 in terms of “survivability and aero-performance perspective,” also pointing towards its stealth coating that is “revolutionary” in its maintainability.

Weapons Onboard

The aircraft is expected to be a heavy strategic bomber that is designed to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons. The USAF is set to arm the B-21 with the next-generation cruise missile Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) missile for nuclear missions.

It will also be capable of carrying the B61 family of free-fall nuclear gravity bombs, specifically the new B61-12 with “dial-a-yield” capability. With these two weapons on board, the Raider will be able to use its stealthy cruise missiles to clear a path through an adversary’s air-defense network before dropping the bombs on primary and secondary targets.

B61 nuclear bomb
B61s on a bomb rack. (Wikipedia)

The Raider will carry the JASSM-ER conventional cruise missile along with 2,000-pound GBU-31 Joint Directed Attack Munition satellite-guided bombs for conventional missions.

The USAF has instructed the manufacturer of the plane to make it with a so-called “open architecture” hardware and software system. Consequently, the B-21 has the potential to be much more than just a heavy bomber.

The open-architecture specification is likely to make integrating future upgrades relatively easy. This could also ensure that the bomber is able to adapt to a variety of new, different missions.

A $203-Billion Program

According to the service estimate published in September last year, the next-generation B-21 stealth bomber program is likely to cost taxpayers at least $203 billion to develop, purchase, and operate 100 aircraft over a period of three decades. This figure is claimed to represent the most complete estimate for the Raider to date.

B-2 'Spirit'
The B-2 ‘Spirit’ (Wikimedia Commons)

The Raider is one of the USAF’s largest programs. However, it is being acquired through nontraditional means, where instead of the regular acquisition process, the B-21 program is managed and acquired through the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

Until FY2022, the funding for B-21 development came through Air Force research and development budgets. In the past couple of years, the outyear (any year beyond a current fiscal year) projections for that funding have declined. The USAF began to request B-21 procurement funds in FY2022, and reports indicate that they may total $5.9 billion through the following five years.

Raider Flying This Year?

Air Force Major General Jason R. Armagost told the media that the B-21 Raider would most likely fly sometime this year. He was speaking at the 2022 Nuclear Deterrence Summit.

“The B-21, going into the future, is going to be our penetrating, get inside the anti-access, area of denial, dual-capable aircraft,” Air Force Magazine quoted him as saying. “There are now six of those in existence. The rollout will probably be sometime this year. I’m not at liberty to give the likely date of that, but [it will be] quickly followed by first flight.”

The USAF had already declared that there were five B-21 in various states of production at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, California. This was in September 2021. Air Force Magazine said that Armagost has confirmed that construction of the sixth bomber only began sometime “in the past few weeks.”

Furthermore, he said that the B-21 program continues to be a model acquisition effort in terms of keeping in line with cost restrictions and following a schedule.

It is still unclear when the B-21 might make its public debut. When the flight testing of the Raider begins, it will take place at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Air Force expects to start delivering the first operational examples soon. These will go to Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. After that, units will be readied at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

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