Even as the U.S. Air Force’s next-gen fighter program continues to hog the limelight, there is another aircraft that is waiting to take off. Shrouded in secrecy, the USAF’s most advanced bomber will debut before the end of this year.
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After years of suspense, the U.S. Air Force has finally confirmed that the B-21 Raider stealth bomber will break cover in a ceremony hosted and sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Corporation at its production facilities in Palmdale, California.
It is the most crucial and ambitious USAF project in years.
Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Andrew Hunter had earlier announced the B-21 rollout plans at the Air & Space Forces Association’s 2022 Air, Space, and Cyber Conference. Military watchers and aviation experts have been holding their breath for the big news ever since.
In a later press release, Northrop Grumman stated that the event would offer an “exclusive view” of the bomber, which would imply that regardless of who is permitted to attend in person, a first-ever public display of the aircraft could accompany the event.
The announcement comes at a time when the United States is at crossroads with two of its biggest adversaries – Russia in the East European region and China in the Indo-Pacific. Both Russia and China are also working on their stealth bomber programs, PAK-DA and H-2O, respectively.
Further, the U.S. Air Force has strengthened and enhanced its Bomber Task Force (BTF) missions with the existing fleet of B-52 and the B-2 Spirit with frequent flights over Europe. Once the B-21 is deployed, it will add more teeth to the American Air Force’s long-range bombing capability.
“The unveiling of the B-21 Raider will be a historic moment for our Air Force and the nation,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.
“We last introduced a new bomber over 30 years ago. As we look to the threats posed by our pacing challenge; we must continue to rapidly modernize. The B-21 Raider will provide formidable combat capability across a range of operations in highly contested environments of the future.”
After being unveiled, a combined team of experts from the Air Force Test Center, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, and Northrop Grumman will continue the B-21 program’s rigorous testing campaign. This will aid in verifying the bomber’s performance and identifying areas for improvement.
The B-21 weapon system is manufactured under the Air Force’s contract with Northrop Grumman. The open system architecture was used in its design, allowing for the quick integration of established technology and ensuring that the aircraft would stay effective as threats changed over time, according to the Air Force.
What Do We Know About The B-21?
Since Northrop Grumman was awarded the contract for what was then known as the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program in 2015, the construction of the nuclear-capable B-21 has been cloaked in secrecy.
Since then, the Air Force and members of Congress have made several public declarations in support of the B-21 purchase program.
The B-21 Raider is named in honor of the legendary Doolittle Raiders, U.S. Army Air Force personnel who are renowned for their surprise raid against Japan on April 18, 1942, which compelled the Japanese to recall their combat forces back home. It also raised morale among Americans and allies abroad.
The Raider is acknowledged as the first bomber of the twenty-first century by the designation B-21.
There are still few public details available regarding its costs and timeline, including whether either has changed much over the previous seven years. However, we do know that the B-21 Raider is a penetrating strike bomber with stealth features and a flying wing design.
The cutting-edge warplane is dual-capable since it can deliver both conventional and nuclear missiles. Northrop Grumman currently has six stealthy next-generation aircraft in various phases of development.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Committee, the first B-21s would be manned, and an uncrewed variant would be deployed a few years after initial operational capability (IOC). The nuclear certification process will take around two years after the IOC.
The aircraft’s intended speed has not been disclosed. However, the B-21’s long-range capability, substantial payload, and financial constraints suggest that it will be subsonic. The Raider’s size, stealth, structure, and onboard sensors are all unknown at this point.
The B-21’s engines are situated where the wings and fuselage converge, close to the wing root. The Raider has overwing exhausts and angled engine air intakes to hide the infrared signal from its four engines.
Most likely, the aircraft will be a big strategic bomber with the ability to transport both nuclear and conventional weapons. For nuclear operations, the U.S. Air Force intends to outfit the B-21 with the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) next-generation cruise missile.
The warplane will be able to transport nuclear gravity bombs from the B61 family, including the brand-new B61-12, with the ability to “dial-a-yield.” Additionally, the Raider could be fitted with 2,000-pound GBU-31 Joint Directed Attack Munition satellite-guided bombs and the JASSM-ER conventional cruise missile for conventional strikes.
The B-21 Raider comes at an opportune moment as the U.S. bomber fleet has started to look old and archaic. The two primary bombers of the USAF – the B-2 is over thirty years old, and the B-52 is about seventy years old.
Even though the Air Force has not revealed any plans of phasing out, the B-52 and B-2 flying alongside the B-21 stealth bomber would be a force multiplier.
Instead of this year as initially anticipated, the Raider is reportedly scheduled to make its maiden flight sometime in the following year. The Northrop Grumman press release said – “The actual timing of first flight will be based on ground test outcomes.”
The first B-21 squadron will be based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, with subsequent squadrons establishing themselves at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.