Ten Things We Know For Sure About The Air Force’s Secret B-21 Bomber

B-2, bomber, Northrop Grumman, Air Force, USAF
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New technology will not be a show-stopper. Performance requirements for the B-21 were largely frozen in 2010, and for years before the development contract was awarded, the Air Force researched how to fashion key on-board systems. Much of the technology has been repurposed from other programs, for example by using the same Pratt & Whitney engine found on the F-35 fighter. Integrating the overall aircraft will be a challenge, particularly blending the engines into the airframe and laying antennas along the edges, but B-21 is an unusually mature design and thus should face few surprises in development.

Production costs will be lower than most observers expect. The Air Force established cost as a “key performance parameter” at the outset, insisting that the price of each production bomber not exceed $550 million in 2010 dollars. The subsequent shootout between competing industry teams resulted in bids far below that number. The Northrop Grumman team won the contract in part because, according to the Government Accountability Office, it had a “substantial cost/price advantage” over the rival Boeing bid—even though the Boeing bid itself was quite aggressive. The average cost of a B-21 under the fixed-price production contract will likely be less than the price-tag for widebody commercial jetliners.

It will be able to destroy any target, anywhere. B-21 was conceived to overcome all the deficiencies of the current heavy bomber fleet, which consists of 157 aging Cold War aircraft. In particular, it will have the range, payload, strike features and survivability to address every category of potential target—including deeply buried or time-sensitive mobile targets inside China. The basic logic of the design is that if the B-21 is to be an effective deterrent to all forms of aggression, then it must be able to hold at risk every asset valued by any adversary, no matter how well concealed or hardened such assets may be.

It will carry a diverse array of munitions, including nuclear weapons. Raider will replace Northrop Grumman’s B-2 “flying wing” in the penetrating part of the strategic nuclear mission assigned to heavy bombers. That means it will be wired from day one to carry the B-61 variable-yield nuclear gravity bomb and the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile. However, it will debut as a conventional bomber capable of employing a diverse collection of smart weapons such as Boeing’s GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, which glides long distances to it targets. B-21 will likely replace the retiring B-1B bomber as a host for the Navy’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, a stealthy, conventional cruise missile built by Lockheed Martin.

It is only one part of a family of strike systems. The Air Force conceived Raider as one piece in an overarching architecture of systems designed to support long-range strike missions. That “family” of systems (as the Air Force calls it) includes airframes, munitions, reconnaissance systems, electronic warfare platforms, and resilient communications channels. Some features of this architecture, such as the role played by reconnaissance satellites, are not publicly discussed. B-21 will have the functionality to tap into any feature of this architecture that is useful in accomplishing its strike missions.

It will be able to act autonomously. Despite its links to various off-board systems, B-21 will have the ability to shut down all external communications and carry out strike missions autonomously. That requirement is dictated by the danger that communications in wartime might help reveal a bomber’s location or destination, and also by the need to operate in a nuclear environment where nearby detonations might degrade communications. So while Raider can leverage off-board capabilities, it has sufficient on-board reconnaissance, targeting and self-defense features to accomplish missions even in the most hostile environments.

It will be assembled at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale California. The B-21 will be integrated at a secure government-owned, contractor-operated facility known as Air Force Plant 42 near Palmdale, California. Plant 42 has over three million square feet of industrial space and is near Edwards Air Force Base where the bomber will undergo flight testing. The B-2 flying wing and the Space Shuttle were both assembled at the same site, which traces its origins back to the 1930s. Northrop Grumman has received funding for a coatings facility in Palmdale that will play a role in adding low-observable features to the bomber. Low observability, or stealth, will make B-21 nearly invisible to the radars of enemy defenders at relevant wavelengths.

The key subcontractors are known. The Air Force initially resisted revealing which subcontractors would support Northrop Grumman in building the B-21 for security reasons, but then identified seven of the most important players. Pratt & Whitney will build the engines, BAE Systems will supply electronic defenses, Collins Aerospace will provide flight controls, and Spirit AeroSystems will manufacture structural components. Most of the subcontracted work will be performed in secure facilities away from Palmdale, and then shipped to Air Force Plant 42 for integration on the bomber.

It will be easier to maintain than earlier stealth aircraft. Low-observable technology revolutionized air warfare, but at its inception the challenge of keeping aircraft stealthy during their service lives was a major problem. Aircraft often needed to be kept grounded for long stretches to assure that once they were airborne, items like seams between parts would not reflect radar energy. Northrop’s B-2 bomber has provided a testbed for developing methods of maintaining low observability more affordably. The Air Force made maintainability a requirement for the Raider program, saying that it wanted a plane as easy to sustain as Boeing’s F-15 fighter. Once the bomber becomes operational, its maintainability will translate into high rates of readiness.

By the time it is available, the B-21 will be urgently needed. Some might say it is urgently needed today, and that the Pentagon took too long to fund development of a new bomber. A substantial fraction of the current heavy bomber fleet is not available for combat on any given day due to age-related issues such as corrosion and metal fatigue. The increased emphasis on China and the Western Pacific theater of operations in U.S. military strategy has expanded demand for long-range strike aircraft at a time when the bomber fleet is at a low ebb. By the time the B-21 Raider debuts in the second half of the next decade, there will be no doubt about its centrality to national strategy. Some observers think the entire bomber force may eventually be replaced by B-21, with a total buy of up to 200 airframes. But first the plane has to prove itself.

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The head of the Air Force office overseeing development of the secret B-21 next-generation bomber remarked last month in a public forum that he “would not bet on” the plane accomplishing its first flight as planned in December of 2021.

He wasn’t signaling trouble with the program, he was simply alluding to the challenges of assembling and testing the most advanced long-range strike aircraft ever conceived. The B-21 Raider, as it was designated in 2016, will provide the Air Force with unprecedented survivability and versatility over very long ranges in support of both conventional and nuclear missions.

That much is widely known. But there is much that is not known, such as precisely what the plane looks like, what it will cost, and how development is progressing. Although the B-21 successfully completed its critical design review late last year, it is largely shrouded in mystery—a necessary move so that potential enemies can’t get a head start in figuring out how they might defend against it when it begins joining the force in the 2020s.

Despite all the secrecy, though, tantalizing details about the B-21 can be learned if you listen to the scattered comments of senior Air Force officials in various venues. Here are ten key features of the Raider that help explain why it is so important to future U.S. military operations, particularly in the Pacific.

New technology will not be a show-stopper. Performance requirements for the B-21 were largely frozen in 2010, and for years before the development contract was awarded, the Air Force researched how to fashion key on-board systems. Much of the technology has been repurposed from other programs, for example by using the same Pratt & Whitney engine found on the F-35 fighter. Integrating the overall aircraft will be a challenge, particularly blending the engines into the airframe and laying antennas along the edges, but B-21 is an unusually mature design and thus should face few surprises in development.

Production costs will be lower than most observers expect. The Air Force established cost as a “key performance parameter” at the outset, insisting that the price of each production bomber not exceed $550 million in 2010 dollars. The subsequent shootout between competing industry teams resulted in bids far below that number. The Northrop Grumman team won the contract in part because, according to the Government Accountability Office, it had a “substantial cost/price advantage” over the rival Boeing bid—even though the Boeing bid itself was quite aggressive. The average cost of a B-21 under the fixed-price production contract will likely be less than the price-tag for widebody commercial jetliners.

It will be able to destroy any target, anywhere. B-21 was conceived to overcome all the deficiencies of the current heavy bomber fleet, which consists of 157 aging Cold War aircraft. In particular, it will have the range, payload, strike features and survivability to address every category of potential target—including deeply buried or time-sensitive mobile targets inside China. The basic logic of the design is that if the B-21 is to be an effective deterrent to all forms of aggression, then it must be able to hold at risk every asset valued by any adversary, no matter how well concealed or hardened such assets may be.

It will carry a diverse array of munitions, including nuclear weapons. Raider will replace Northrop Grumman’s B-2 “flying wing” in the penetrating part of the strategic nuclear mission assigned to heavy bombers. That means it will be wired from day one to carry the B-61 variable-yield nuclear gravity bomb and the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile. However, it will debut as a conventional bomber capable of employing a diverse collection of smart weapons such as Boeing’s GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, which glides long distances to it targets. B-21 will likely replace the retiring B-1B bomber as a host for the Navy’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, a stealthy, conventional cruise missile built by Lockheed Martin.

It is only one part of a family of strike systems. The Air Force conceived Raider as one piece in an overarching architecture of systems designed to support long-range strike missions. That “family” of systems (as the Air Force calls it) includes airframes, munitions, reconnaissance systems, electronic warfare platforms, and resilient communications channels. Some features of this architecture, such as the role played by reconnaissance satellites, are not publicly discussed. B-21 will have the functionality to tap into any feature of this architecture that is useful in accomplishing its strike missions.

It will be able to act autonomously. Despite its links to various off-board systems, B-21 will have the ability to shut down all external communications and carry out strike missions autonomously. That requirement is dictated by the danger that communications in wartime might help reveal a bomber’s location or destination, and also by the need to operate in a nuclear environment where nearby detonations might degrade communications. So while Raider can leverage off-board capabilities, it has sufficient on-board reconnaissance, targeting and self-defense features to accomplish missions even in the most hostile environments.

It will be assembled at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale California. The B-21 will be integrated at a secure government-owned, contractor-operated facility known as Air Force Plant 42 near Palmdale, California. Plant 42 has over three million square feet of industrial space and is near Edwards Air Force Base where the bomber will undergo flight testing. The B-2 flying wing and the Space Shuttle were both assembled at the same site, which traces its origins back to the 1930s. Northrop Grumman has received funding for a coatings facility in Palmdale that will play a role in adding low-observable features to the bomber. Low observability, or stealth, will make B-21 nearly invisible to the radars of enemy defenders at relevant wavelengths.

The key subcontractors are known. The Air Force initially resisted revealing which subcontractors would support Northrop Grumman in building the B-21 for security reasons, but then identified seven of the most important players. Pratt & Whitney will build the engines, BAE Systems will supply electronic defenses, Collins Aerospace will provide flight controls, and Spirit AeroSystems will manufacture structural components. Most of the subcontracted work will be performed in secure facilities away from Palmdale, and then shipped to Air Force Plant 42 for integration on the bomber.

It will be easier to maintain than earlier stealth aircraft. Low-observable technology revolutionized air warfare, but at its inception the challenge of keeping aircraft stealthy during their service lives was a major problem. Aircraft often needed to be kept grounded for long stretches to assure that once they were airborne, items like seams between parts would not reflect radar energy. Northrop’s B-2 bomber has provided a testbed for developing methods of maintaining low observability more affordably. The Air Force made maintainability a requirement for the Raider program, saying that it wanted a plane as easy to sustain as Boeing’s F-15 fighter. Once the bomber becomes operational, its maintainability will translate into high rates of readiness.

By the time it is available, the B-21 will be urgently needed. Some might say it is urgently needed today, and that the Pentagon took too long to fund development of a new bomber. A substantial fraction of the current heavy bomber fleet is not available for combat on any given day due to age-related issues such as corrosion and metal fatigue. The increased emphasis on China and the Western Pacific theater of operations in U.S. military strategy has expanded demand for long-range strike aircraft at a time when the bomber fleet is at a low ebb. By the time the B-21 Raider debuts in the second half of the next decade, there will be no doubt about its centrality to national strategy. Some observers think the entire bomber force may eventually be replaced by B-21, with a total buy of up to 200 airframes. But first the plane has to prove itself.

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