US debuts B-21 stealth bomber as 'most advanced warplane ever built'

Northrop Grumman unveils the B-21 Raider, a new high-tech stealth bomber developed for the U.S. Air Force, during an event in Palmdale, - Reuters
Northrop Grumman unveils the B-21 Raider, a new high-tech stealth bomber developed for the U.S. Air Force, during an event in Palmdale, - Reuters

America's newest nuclear stealth bomber, with the ability to disguise itself as another object, has made its public debut after years of secret development.

The B-21 Raider, which is on track to cost nearly $700 million per plane, is the first new American bomber aircraft in more than 30 years.

The B-21 will gradually replace the B-1 and B-2 aircraft, which first flew during the Cold War.

The aircraft, which some observers likened to a flying saucer in shape, was unveiled in a spectacular reveal on Friday night at an Air Force facility in Palmdale, California.

“The B-21 Raider changes everything,” said Northrup Grumman CEO Kathy Warden whose company is behind the build.

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Many specifics of the aircraft are being kept under wraps as classified information, but the plane offers significant advances over existing bombers in the US fleet.

B-21, which can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, boasts a futuristic flying-wing design and is intended to fly thousands of miles to strike targets deep behind enemy lines, evading detection by the most sophisticated air defences.

It can fly about 6,000 miles before being refuelled and has a 15-ton payload.

Several defence analysts said changes would likely include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber harder to detect, and use of new propulsion technologies.

Using new ways to control electronic emissions, the bomber could spoof adversary radars and disguise itself as another object.

“Even the most sophisticated air defence systems will struggle to detect the B-21,” said Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of Defense who attended the preview.

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Among the other new capabilities offered by the B-21 is the potential for unmanned flight, with pilots flying it remotely from American soil.

The Air Force has not disclosed when it will deploy the new plane, though military analysts expect the first to enter operations in 2026 or 2027.

The bomber is part of the Pentagon's efforts to modernise all three legs of its nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it shifts from the counterterrorism campaigns of recent decades to meet China's rapid military modernisation.

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 consequential and systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system," the Pentagon said this week in its annual China report.

"We needed a new bomber for the 21st Century that would allow us to take on much more complicated threats, like the threats that we fear we would one day face from China, Russia," said Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary when the Raider contract was announced in 2015. "The B-21 is more survivable and can take on these much more difficult threats."

While the Raider may resemble the B-2, once you get inside, the similarities stop, Ms Warden said.

"The way it operates internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of the computing capability that we can now embed in the software of the B-21," she said.

Ms Warden could not discuss specifics of those technologies but said the bomber will be more stealthy and claimed it was the most ever manufactured.

"When we talk about low observability, it is incredibly low observability," she said. "You'll 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 either nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and can be used with or without a human crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the Raider's relatively quick development: The bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have taken decades.

The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force previously put the price for a buy of 100 aircraft at an average cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars - roughly $753 million today - but it's unclear how much the Air Force is actually spending.

The fact that the price is not public troubles government watchdogs.

Northrop Grumman unveils the B-21 Raider - REUTERS/David Swanson
Northrop Grumman unveils the B-21 Raider - REUTERS/David Swanson

"It might be a big challenge for us to do our normal analysis of a major program like this," said Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.

"It's easy to say that the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Because it's only when one of these programs goes into the actual testing phase when real problems are discovered. And so that's the point when schedules really start to slip and costs really start to rise."

The Raider will not make its first flight until 2023. However, using advanced computing, Ms Warden said, Northrop Grumman has been testing the Raider's performance using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one being unveiled.

The B-2 was also envisioned to be a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force ultimately built only 21 of them, due to cost overruns and a changed security environment after the Soviet Union fell.

Fewer than that are ready to fly on any given day due to the significant maintenance needs of the aging bomber, said Todd Harrison, an aerospace specialist and managing director at Metrea Strategic Insights.

The B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the 1942 Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Mr Warden said.

In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew 44 hours straight to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. But the B-2 often does long round-trip missions, because there are few hangars globally that can accommodate its wingspan. That limits where B-2s can land for needed post-flight maintenance. And the hangars needed to be air-conditioned because the Spirit's windows don't open and hotter climates can cook cockpit electronics.

The new Raider will also get new hangars, to accommodate the size and complexity of the bomber, Ms Warden said.