U.S. Air Force Unveils B-21 Raider Sixth-generation Bomber

 - December 3, 2022, 5:28 AM
Only head-on views of the B-21 have been released, revealing some of the similarities and significant differences between it and its stealthy predecessor, the B-2 Spirit. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force have revealed the B-21 Raider stealthy long-range bomber to the public for the first time. The December 2 ceremony was held under darkening skies at the manufacturer’s facility at Palmdale Airport in California and was attended by Northrop Grumman personnel and senior military and government officials, including defense secretary Lloyd Austin.

“The B-21 Raider is the first strategic bomber in more than three decades,” said Austin. “It is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation.” The aircraft, he went on to say, “is deterrence the American way. This isn’t just another airplane. It’s not just another acquisition. It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love. It’s a testament to our strategy of deterrence—with the capabilities to back it up, every time and everywhere.”

Prior to the unveiling, overflights were performed by the USAF’s current trio of bombers—the Boeing B-52H and B-1B and the Northrop Grumman B-2A. The two latter types are scheduled to be replaced by the B-21, although the B-52 will continue to serve alongside the new bomber as the veteran passes its 80th birthday.

During the carefully managed live-streamed ceremony the drapes were lifted off the B-21 as it was towed out of its hangar, before being pushed back in again. The late evening timing may have been chosen to avoid any inadvertent photography of the aircraft’s rear end: during the roll-out ceremony of the B-2 in November 1988 Aviation Week obtained aerial photos of the B-2 from a light aircraft.

This time the audience was only afforded a head-on view of the B-21, which confirmed that the aircraft is superficially similar to the B-2, albeit appearing to be slightly smaller. The most obvious difference is that the Pratt & Whitney engines—believed to be adaptations of the F-35’s F135 powerplant—are buried deeper in the blended wing, with less prominent intakes and resulting in a bulkier lower space. The cockpit windows are of a more complex shape, and the main landing gear units have two wheels instead of four.

B-2 Spirit
Compared with the B-21 (below), the earlier B-2 Spirit (above) features more prominent intakes and blended engine trunks, shallower lower section, as well as a simpler cockpit window arrangement. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

B-21 Raider

However, the most important differences are to the aircraft’s signature management and its internal systems, both of which have benefitted from four decades of significant advances since the development of the B-2. Billed as a sixth-generation bomber, the aircraft is digitally designed and, at its heart, features an open systems architecture that will permit rapid upgrading and technology insertion in the future. Although the principal role is long-range strike into denied airspace with both conventional and nuclear weapons, leveraging its improved stealth characteristics, the aircraft will also be capable of conducting intelligence-gathering missions and acting as a battle command node.

The B-21 is the product of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program, for which requests for proposals were issued in July 2014. Northrop Grumman was awarded the development contract in October 2015. The Raider name was bestowed in 2016. Air Force Global Strike Command intends to acquire at least 100, with service entry expected around 2026/2027. They will initially replace the B-1B, followed by the B-2A. Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota—currently home to B-1Bs—has been selected to be the initial main operating base and to host the training unit, while Dyess AFB, Texas (B-1B) and Whiteman AFB, Missouri (B-2) have been named as preferred operating locations for additional units.

Northrop Grumman has six B-21s in various stages of production at Palmdale, including the aircraft unveiled at the ceremony. While they are to be designated as test articles, they are being built using production tooling and processes by the production workforce to avoid unnecessary costs when the program moves into the production phase.

No date has been set for the first flight, which will be driven by data and events. However, it is expected to occur sometime in mid-2023. In closing the ceremony, Kathy Warden, Northrop Grumman chair, CEO, and president, remarked: “The next time you see this plane, it’ll be in the air.”