WASHINGTON (AP) — America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber is making its public debut after years of secret development and as part of the Pentagon’s response to growing concerns about a future conflict with China.
The B-21 Raider is America’s first new bomber aircraft in over 30 years. Almost all aspects of the program are classified. Ahead of its Friday unveiling at an Air Force facility in Palmdale, Calif., only artist renderings of the warplane have been released. These few images reveal that the Raider resembles the black nuclear stealth bomber it will eventually replace, the B-2 Spirit.
The bomber is part of the Pentagon’s effort to modernize the three arms of its nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it moves from decades-old counterterrorism campaigns to modernization China’s fast military.
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its gains in hypersonics, cyber warfare, space capabilities and other areas present “the most significant and systemic challenge to the national security of the United States and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said. this week in its annual report on China.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st century that would allow us to deal with much more complicated threats, like the threats we fear we might one day face from China, from Russia,” said Deborah Lee James, the Secretary of the Air Force when the Raider contract was announced in 2015. “The B-21 is tougher and can take on these much tougher threats.”
Although the Raider may look like the B-2, once inside the similarities stop, said Kathy Warden, general manager of Northrop Grumman Corp., which builds the Raider.
“The way it works internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of computing capacity that we can now integrate the software from the B-21,” Warden said.
Other changes likely include advanced materials used in skins to make the bomber harder to detect, new ways to control electronic emissions, so the bomber can spoof enemy radars and disguise itself as another object, and the use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
In a fact sheet, Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Va., said it was using “new techniques and manufacturing materials to ensure the B-21 will defeat anti-access systems and denial of area that he will face”.
Warden could not discuss specifics of these technologies, but said the bomber would be stealthier.
“When we talk about low observability, we mean incredibly low observability,” Warden said. “You will hear it, but you really won’t see it.”
Six B-21 Raiders are in production; The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and can be used with or without a human crew. The Air Force and Northrop also point to the relatively rapid development of the Raider: the bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other programs for new fighters and ships took decades.
The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force had previously priced the purchase of 100 planes at an average cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars — about $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much the Air Force actually spends.
The fact that the award is not public worries government watchdogs.
“It could be a big challenge for us to do our normal analysis of a major program like this,” said Dan Grazier, senior defense policy researcher at the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s easy to tell that the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs enters the actual testing phase that real problems are discovered. And that’s when the schedules really start to slip and the costs really start to go up.
The Raider won’t make its first flight until 2023. However, using advanced computing, Warden said, Northrop Grumman tested the Raider’s performance using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one that is unveiled.
The B-2 was also envisioned as a fleet of over 100 aircraft, but the Air Force ultimately only built 21, due to cost overruns and a changed security environment after the crash. of the Soviet Union.
Less than that is ready to fly on any given day due to the aging bomber’s significant maintenance needs, said Todd Harrison, aerospace specialist and managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights.
The B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record by flying 44 hours straight to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. But the B-2 often flies long round trips, as there are few hangars in the world that can accommodate its wingspan. This limits where B-2s can land for necessary post-flight maintenance. And the hangars had to be air-conditioned – because the Spirit’s windows don’t open, warmer climates can bake out the cockpit electronics.
The new Raider will also receive new hangars, to accommodate the size and complexity of the bomber, Warden said.
A final noticeable difference is in the beginning itself. While both debuted at the Air Force’s Palmdale Plant 42, in 1989 the B-2 was launched outdoors amidst great public fanfare.
Given advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider will make its very low-key debut and be seen inside a hangar. Guests, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, will see the hangar doors open to reveal the bomber for its public display, then the doors will close.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”
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