After seven years of tightly guarded development, the first B-21 Raider will be unveiled today during a ceremony at Northrop Grumman’s plant in Palmdale, Calif. There, the company is building at least six of the new stealth bombers, which it calls the “first sixth-generation” combat aircraft.
The B-21 will be the centerpiece of the Air Force’s long-range strike portfolio, expected to enter service in a few years and persist for decades with continuous improvements to make it capable against tough and evolving air defense threats worldwide.
The rollout sparks some deja-vu as it takes place at the same facility where the company rolled out the B-2, the first stealth bomber, in a ceremony 34 years ago last month. The two aircraft bear a strong family resemblance. Both are large flying-wings and have a clear lineage from the YB-35 and YB-49 flying wing bomber prototypes designed by Jack Northrop himself some 70 years ago.
Although the Air Force has released several artist’s renderings of the Raider, all of those preliminary images have had features concealed or altered to protect the airplane’s secret attributes. Today’s unveiling will be the first time the jet will be on uncensored display. Even so, it is expected that it will be presented in such a way as to conceal some of those characteristics.
A live video feed of the ceremony is to be broadcast, and network news coverage is also expected.
There is no set definition of what a “sixth-generation” combat aircraft is. Fifth generation has come to be regarded as aircraft possessing stealth characteristics and sensor fusion to achieve unprecedented situational awareness of the battle space. Some attributes of the “sixth generation” may be the ability to be “optionally manned”—a feature the B-21 is supposed to have—even better sensors, sharply improved stealth, and potentially, capability to use directed-energy weapons such as lasers or high-powered microwave beams.
Major unknowns about the B-21—which may or may not be answered by today’s revelation—are its exact size and the number and type of Pratt & Whitney engines beneath its stealthy skin. One of the only hiccups in development known about the B-21 was that the air intakes needed refinement to improve airflow through the serpentine engine ducts, which shield the fan blades—a major radar reflector—from enemy view.
The B-21 is the centerpiece of a “family of systems” which the Air Force and Northrop Grumman have said will include external support platforms and enablers. These have not been described in detail but are likely to include jam-resistant satellite communications and the possible use of bomber-launched decoys, radar jammers, or intelligence-collection vehicles.
Although originally expected to be named the B-3, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James decided in 2016 to name the bomber the B-21, to reflect its status as the Air Force’s principal bomber for the 21st century. It was named the Raider to honor the Doolittle Raiders of World War II, which carried the first counterstrike against the Japanese home islands after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The innovative mission—flown by Army bombers off Navy carriers to extend their reach—surprised the Japanese, who believed their home territory to be too far removed from the U.S. to be under threat.
Similarly, the B-21 is to be capable of holding at risk any target on the face of the Earth. Its advanced stealth and electronic warfare systems are designed to enable it to penetrate the most sophisticated air defenses any nation can muster. It is also expected to be able to persist in enemy territory, collecting information and providing it to other strikers.
The B-21 grew out of technologies Northrop Grumman continued to develop after the B-2 was terminated at just 20 (later 21) aircraft. It was halted due to the double whammy of the end of the Cold War and rising unit costs as the planned buy of the B-2 was whittled down by Congress. Initially, some 132 B-2s were planned to be built, and Northrop Grumman had been contracted to tool its facilities to build the aircraft at scale and a rapid pace, but the diminishing Russian threat prompted Congress to stop funding new B-2s in 1997.
Soon after, the Air Force was instructed to pursue a new program, dubbed the Next-Generation Bomber (NGB), or “2018 bomber.” Various bomber roadmaps held that a 2018 in-service date was necessary, both to begin replacing aging B-1 and B-52 bombers and to address worsening threats.
Northrop Grumman went under contract to develop NGB technologies, both to leverage what it had learned in creating the B-2 as well as to develop improved stealth capabilities for that aircraft, which have been applied during various upgrades since. These include improved stealth surface treatments, more efficient and repeatable ways of applying the treatments, and electronic warfare upgrades.
In 2008, Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed a partnership to compete for the NGB, and in the following months, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon was also contemplating an unmanned version of the new bomber. (Artwork of a notional Boeing-Lockheed NGB—a flying wing—bore a striking resemblance to the eventual B-21.)
In 2009, however, Gates canceled the NGB, saying its planned capabilities had become “exquisite,” meaning the aircraft as then envisioned would be too packed with costly capability to be affordable in numbers. The Northrop Grumman and Boeing-Lockheed Martin teams were told to stop working on the NGB aircraft, and the Air Force was directed to start over and pursue a new bomber that would be more affordable. The 2018 in-service target date was dropped.
The new program was dubbed the Long-Range Strike aircraft, and equal among its performance requirements was the need to keep its unit cost under $550 million in 2010 dollars.
In 2015, the Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman for what was then called the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B. William LaPlante, then Air Force acquisition executive and now undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said at the contract award announcement that the LRS-B would have to come in at $515 million a copy “in 2010 dollars when procuring 100 aircraft.”
Rather than tool for production of dozens of aircraft a year, costs would be reduced by tooling only for about 15 airplanes per year, Air Force officials said at the time. LaPlante said the program would not experience any steep ramp-ups in production, which tend to be disrupted in years when budget cuts must be found. The LRS-B schedule, he said, would be “resilient” because of its modest and consistent production pace.
Air Force officials also said the first aircraft would be available for operational use in the “mid-2020s.”
Prior to the contract award, the Air Force had spent nearly $2 billion on risk-reduction efforts, and LaPlante announced that the engineering, manufacturing, and development contract would cost $21.4 billion in 2010 dollars.
He said the EMD contract would be a “cost-reimbursable type” with incentives for Northrop Grumman to meet the planned cost schedule and “reduced profit if they do not control” those factors.
Although little is known about the B-21’s specific capabilities, it has earned praise from members of Congress read into the program, including House Armed Services chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has called it one of the Pentagon’s “best run” programs.
To keep the program secret, reduce the oversight chain, and pursue an overall lean approach to the B-21’s development, it has been managed by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, with direct reporting to the senior Air Force leadership.
To prevent costly redesigns, the B-21’s requirements can be changed only at the order of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and all of the Chiefs who have presided over the program say they have not altered its goals. To keep the B-21 capable against the current and evolving threat, however, the bomber has been designed with an “open architecture” to allow modular change-outs of sensors, weapons, communications, and other attributes. In the future, other contractors will be able to compete to upgrade these elements of the B-21.
Although it has divulged little about the bomber’s progress, the Air Force has said the B-21 is meeting expectations and living within the cost limits imposed at its outset.
The B-21’s first flight is expected in mid-2023. It is being revealed now because it has reached the stage where outside activities—such as engine runs and taxi tests—will soon begin, and the aircraft will be exposed to public view.
In a statement released by Northrop Grumman ahead of the rollout, it said it’s applying “continuously advancing technology, employing new manufacturing techniques and materials to ensure the B-21 will defeat the anti-access, area-denial systems it will face.” The aircraft benefits from more than three decades of strike and stealth technology, the company said. Among Northrop Grumman’s other stealth programs are the B-2 Spirit bomber, the YF-23 fighter prototype, the Tacit Blue stealth demonstrator, the AGM-137 Tri-Service Standoff Missile, and numerous other presumed classified programs.
The company’s RQ-4 Global Hawk family of unmanned, high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft are gradually being phased out of USAF service, but there is strong evidence they are being superseded by another Northop Grumman stealth platform called the RQ-180, said to bear a strong resemblance to the B-21.
The company also revealed that it has created a “digital twin” of the B-21 to facilitate and speed any changes made to the platform in the digital world before applying them to physical aircraft.
Northrop Grumman also said that, because of the B-21’s “open architecture,” it will forego a common pattern on other programs: the block upgrade.
“To meet the evolving threat environment, the B-21 has been designed from day one for rapid upgradeability,” the company said. “Unlike earlier generation aircraft, the B-21 will not undergo block upgrades. New technology, capabilities and weapons will be seamlessly incorporated through agile software upgrades and built-in hardware flexibility. This will ensure the B-21 Raider can continuously meet the evolving threat head on for decades to come.”