The B-21 Raider: A new stealth bomber is revealed

On Friday, the public finally got a glimpse of the Air Force’s next bomber, the B-21 Raider. Northrop Grumman, who makes it, unveiled the futuristic craft on December 2 at a ceremony in Palmdale, California. It’s a cloaked aircraft, which means it’s designed for minimal radar signature. It is also said to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The new aircraft will eventually join a bomber fleet currently made up of three different aircraft types: the legacy, non-cloaked B-52, the supersonic B-1B, and the flying wing B-2, the most direct of the B-21 ancestors.

Here’s what you should know about the B-21 Raider.

The B-21 Raider. US Air Force

A look back at 1988

At the unveiling of the B-21, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the new aircraft “the first bomber of the 21st century”. Among the bomber models it will eventually replace is the 1980s aircraft, the B-2 Spirit.

As Peter Westwick relates in his history of the elusive planes in the United States, stealth, two aircraft manufacturers competed to build the B-2. Northrop defeated Lockheed to build the stealth bomber, while Lockheed had previously beaten Northrop to build the first stealth fighter: the F-117. Northrop was awarded the contract to build the B-2 in late 1981 and launched the vehicle a little over seven years later in 1988.

The 1988 rollout event, Westwick writes, included “no fewer than 41 Air Force generals” and an audience of 2,000 people. “A tractor towed the plane out of the hangar, the crowd roared, the press took pictures, and then the tractor pushed it out of sight again,” he writes. In 1989 she flew for the first time.

[Related: The B-21 bomber won’t need a drone escort, thank you very much]

Today, the B-2 represents the smallest segment of the US bomber fleet numerically. “We only bought 21 of them,” says Todd Harrison, defense analyst at Metrea Strategic Insights. “One has crashed, one is being used for testing, and at some point several others will be in maintenance – so the reality is that we have far too few stealth bombers in our inventory and the only way to get more was, to design and build a whole new bomber.”

Our first look at the Air Force's new B-21 stealth bomber was just a cautious teaser
The B-2 Spirit, seen here from a refueling aircraft, in 2012. US Air Force / Franklin Ramos

The new bomber

The B-21, when it flies, will join the old group of bombers. These planes, like the B-1, “are really aging and difficult to keep in the air – they’re very expensive to fly and they just don’t have the capabilities that we need in the bomber fleet of today and in the future,” says Harrison. The B-52s date from the early 1960s; once told a B-52 pilot popular science that being behind the controls of this plane feels like “flying a museum”. If the B-52 is officially called the Stratofortress, it was also called the Stratosaurus. (A likely future scenario is that the bomber fleet will eventually consist of just two models: B-52s, which get new engines, and the B-21.)

[Related: Inside a training mission with a B-52 bomber, the aircraft that will not die]

For the B-21, the view the reveal video offers is just the plane from the front, a brief vision of a futuristic aircraft. “They’re probably not going to reveal the really interesting things about the B-21,” notes Harrison. “The most interesting thing is what they can’t show us.” This includes both internal and external attributes.

The public unveiling of such an aircraft represents a calculated decision to show that a capability is there without revealing too much about it. “You want to reveal things that you think will help prevent Russia or China from doing things that could provoke us into war,” he says. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to show too much because you don’t want to make it easy for your opponent to come up with plans and technology to counter your abilities.”

In fact, the way Secretary of Defense Austin characterized the B-21 on December 2 was along those lines. “The B-21 looks impressive, but what’s under the frame, and the space-age coatings, is even more impressive,” he said. Then he talked about his range, stealth attributes and other characteristics in general terms. (The War Zone, a PopSci sibling site, did an in-depth analysis of the plane here and interviewed the pilots, who will likely be flying it here for the first time.)

Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, says the B-21 rollout he participated in “was orchestrated very carefully.”

[Related: The stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden are still cloaked in mystery]

“There were multiple lights on each side of the plane that shone into the audience,” he recalls. “Camera angles were controlled very carefully, reporters were told what they could and couldn’t do in terms of photography, and of course the plane wasn’t fully rolled out – pretty much exactly half of it was still in the hangar. so people couldn’t see the tail section.”

“The one word you heard the most from all the speakers during the presentation was ‘deterrence,'” adds Gunzinger. Part of doing that is signaling to others that the US has “commendable capabilities” but at the same time “there should be enough uncertainty about the specifics – capabilities, etc. – that they don’t develop effective countermeasures.”

The rollout of the B-21 ended with Northrup Grumman CEO Kathy Warden mentioning the aircraft’s next big moment. “The next time you see this plane, it will be in the air,” she said. “Now we’re putting this plane to bed.”

And with that, it was pushed back into the hangar and the doors in front of it closed.

Check out the reveal video below.

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