A recent test of the United States Air Force’s prototype of the sixth-generation fighter jets has revealed that the stealthy pair of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptor will no longer be America’s most advanced fighters.
While the sixth-generation fighter jets are likely to dominate the skies only by the end of the 2020s or by mid-2030s, the one aircraft that is set to become the US’ number one priority is the B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber, which is currently under development.
The test was carried under the US’ Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
For years, the fifth-generation duo — F-35 fighters and F-22 Raptors — have cemented their position among the world’s elite because of their state-of-the-art features and immensely powerful stealth abilities.
Both fighters showcase air superiority and rank as the most modern fighters currently. However, the fact that features such as stealth will be a prerequisite for almost all sixth-generation aircraft, including the NGAD fighter, UK’s Tempest, and the European FCAS aircraft, is not good news for the American pair.
Most importantly, US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown has confirmed the Pentagon’s priority shift from the Lockheed fighters to other aspects of the service.
Brown, while mentioning his top three modernization priorities for the US Air Force, said, “It’s really the capability that matters. And as we look at, you know, future conflicts, we may be fighting differently. I don’t know that for a fact. But when I came in, cyber wasn’t a thing. Now it is. Space was a benign environment. Now, not as much.”
Among the top priorities of the US Air Force is a nuclear-capable stealth aircraft, and Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider appears to be a clear winner on this parameter.
Prior to his dismissal by President Donald Trump, former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had visited the company’s headquarters in Virginia to get an update on the development of the program, where he stressed the need for nuclear modernization.
“Nuclear modernization is a department priority – especially in our efforts to implement the National Defense Strategy. We have made great strides in ensuring the strength and reliability of our nation’s nuclear deterrent. The ability to strike any target, anywhere is the ultimate strategic deterrent, and the B-21 Raider will bring that capability,” Esper had said.
Designed to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons, B-21 Raider is the country’s most advanced fighter, which was inducted into the US Air Force as part of the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program.
The tailless bomber which holds a huge resemblance to its predecessor, the iconic B-2 Spirit Bomber, is expected to be in the service in the next two years.
It will serve as an advanced, very long-range, large, heavy-payload, stealth, intercontinental strategic bomber. It will also bring new dimensions of stealth, software, offensive possibilities, and nuclear deterrence technique.
General Timothy Ray, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), said the US is excited to welcome the Raiders into the forces.
“The progress I saw today further adds to my confidence that the B-21 Raider will preserve our long-range strike and penetrating bomber capability…We’re excited to get the B-21 Raider to bases in the mid-2020,” he added.
In view of the current South China Sea tension, the B-21 Raiders are seen as a potential option to be used against the hostile enemy in the future.
According to reports, the US has scaled up its requirements from the earlier 80 to 100 B-21s to 180 such bombers.
In addition, the B-21 could play an important role in hitting heavily guarded targets, according to General Mark E. Weatherington, Commander, Eighth Air Force, and Commander, Joint-Global Strike Operations Center.
“The B-21 is intended to stand in and hit heavily-defended targets with special-purpose weapons that we can use to strike from a distance or by other means. We know the B-21 will bring unique characteristics with low observability and weapons,” he said.
The B-21 Raider is the first US multirole bomber that is loaded with surveillance, communications, drone, or electronic warfare packages to carry out a variety of missions, particularly in ‘denied environments’.
It is reported that the bomber might also be equipped with the Advanced Applications Rotary Launcher (AARL), used by the B-2 bomber, which will enable it to carry eight bombs or missiles.
As per the instructions of the US Air Force, the aircraft is being built with an “open architecture” hardware, and the software system, so the bomber can have easier integration with future upgrades.