One of the US Air Force’s (USAF) most ambitious aircraft programs, B-21 stealth bombers, is moving on the right track. There are five B-21 Raiders under various stages of production, according to USAF Secretary Frank Kendell.
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Addressing an audience attending the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference, Kendell said the USAF has long reaped the return on investments made into the legendary B-2 ‘Spirit’ stealth bomber program and stressed the need for a change in accordance with technological advancements.
Kendell also announced that five B-21s are being built at the Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale California.
“As I speak there are now five test aircraft being manufactured on the B-21 production line at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California,” Kendell was quoted as saying by Defense News. “You will never hear me make optimistic predictions about programs. All programs have risk and the same is true of the B-21, but at this point at least, the program is making good progress to real fielded capability.”
Flight testing of B-21s is likely to commence next year. It was previously said that USAF had only two B-21s under production. Reports indicate that the service intends to procure at least 100 B-21 Raiders, with some analysts predicting the numbers to be as high as 200 stealth bombers.
However, how close Northrop Grumman is to finishing construction on the first B-21 remains ambiguous as of now.
The Raider And Its Mission
The B-21 Raider program draws from decades of experience garnered from the B-2 stealth bomber which made its maiden flight in 1989 and took part in combat operations in the first Gulf War and the Balkans Conflict among other subsequent battlefields. This gives the company a solid foundation to build upon.
While most of the project details remain classified, open-source information indicates that the Raider, like its predecessor, will be a stealth aircraft with the possibility of flying as both manned aircraft and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). As a UCAV, it could be armed with an assortment of lethal weapons.
There is also speculation over the type of sensors the B-21 Raider will come equipped with. For instance, the F-35 boasts state-of-the-art electro-optical targeting systems enhancing the fighter’s air-to-ground capabilities. The Raider may be equipped with a similar type of sensor.
Coming to radar, the B-2 bomber used the APQ-181 phased array radar, which enabled it to operate in non-permissive environments with very low interception chances. The B-21 might build upon this concept to cater to the evolving state of warfighting.
Some analysts believe that a defining feature of future stealth bombers will be its communications suite. The past two decades have seen major strides in the sharing of battlefield intelligence between operational units.
The B-21 could potentially be deployed to seek and acquire enemy locations in order to relay it back to other units while receiving critical battlefield intel from other assets active in the operational theater.
Modern-day air defenses and radar systems have enhanced detection ranges, increasing the probability of detecting even stealth aircraft, thanks to the advent of infrared search and tracking technology. So, why is USAF investing heavily into a new stealth bomber?
Flying over strategic targets which are heavily guarded by modern air defense platforms like the S-400s and S-500s for instance is no longer as operationally feasible as it used to be in the past.
Such operations, if attempted, would likely require a fleet of fighter escorts, radar jamming aircraft, and effective Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) tactics.
In the past, B-2s were used in warzones of Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya which were operating Soviet-era air defense systems. In the future, the B-21 Raider could be used as a strategic bomber as it could potentially carry nuclear weapons and would serve as the bomber component of the US’ nuclear triad.
A Bomber Which Won’t Bomb?
Some analysts, however, speculate that the B-21 might not even serve as a bomber at all; rather it would be used as an Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.
This argument stems from the view that the US has not developed manned ISR aircraft in years. The last developments in recon aircraft were in the 1950s; for instance, the U2 spy plane was deployed against the Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.
This was followed by the SR-71. Eventually, surface-to-air missile technology caught up and made it far too perilous to operate manned spy planes.
This saw ISR roles shift to space-based assets and eventually towards drones. The USAF has a range of stealth drones such as the X-47B, RQ-170, and the RQ-180. Speculation over the B-21s operating jointly as a spy plane and combat drone cannot entirely be ruled out in the era of multi-role aircraft.
The B-2 stealth bomber was a pioneer in stealth technology and proved its mettle in numerous combat situations. Whether the Raider can carry forward this legacy remains speculative at this juncture.
The announcement by USAF Secy Kendell is indicative of a steady rate of development in the program.
However, the US is not the only one to have stealth bombers, as its rivals China and Russia have begun similar projects. Russia is working on its Tupolev PAK DA next-generation stealth bomber while China is working on its own secretive H-20 stealth bomber. Only time will tell who will prevail in this new-age stealth race.
- Aritra Banerjee is a defense journalist who has worked in both online and print media. He has laid an emphasis on issues related to military human resources, tactical psychology, military-media relations, professional military education, and combat fitness. He can be reached on email: [email protected]
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