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Currently Known Information, Version 2001

Northrop has created six B-21 prototypes or is currently working on them, with the first two sets to conduct ground tests and fly for the first time in 2019.

What Exactly Did the Air Force’s B-21 Disclosure Teach Us? The B-21 Raider, the United States Air Force’s first new bomber in three decades, was revealed last Friday in a private event at the Plant 42 complex outside Palmdale, California. A project worker named Johan Riley sang the national anthem while three active strategic bombers from the Global Strike Command flew overhead: an eight-engine B-52, a huge but elegant supersonic B-1B Lancer, and a stealthy B-2 Spirit with wings that resemble bat wings.

The CEO of Northrop Grumman, Kathy Warden, spoke, as did the admiral in charge of the military, Christopher Grady, and the secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin. Smaller flying wing aircraft like the B-2 under a tarp made public

Concept art and official statements match most B-21 information.

Neither of the presenters gave any new, hard information about the technology or how it worked. To learn more about such anticipations, read this earlier essay.

The unveiling and how people talk reveal more about the first modern bomber of the 21st century.

People sometimes confuse B-21s with Northrop’s B-2s, which are also bombers. However, the B-21’s smaller size and lighter weight meant that each landing gear could only have two wheels. The odd windows of the B-21 have also garnered a lot of interest. The Mark 1 eyeball has been kept as a backup system, even though the crew appears to be leaning heavily on external sensors for situational awareness. The windows appear to be in the most advantageous location for “hooking up,” with fuel tanks overhead. Unlike the B-2, the Raider’s engine inlets are further back into the wing, protecting the radar-reflective fan blades from the elements.

The Raider’s radar cross section was small because it had few seams or hardpoints for weapons and sensors that stuck out. That raises the possibility that the B-21’s skin has optical and radar sensors. Furthermore, such a layout might make it possible to undertake internal improvements or equipment swaps in the future without compromising the stealthy exterior design.

Raider sides and back have hidden sides. The sawtooth design of the B-2 was a compromise between stealth and enhanced low-altitude handling, while concept art suggested a cleaner, more straightforward layout.

As with the B-2, the Raider will try to achieve “all-aspect stealth,” which is a very rare thing to do. Since it is supposed to sneak far into enemy territory, its side and rear views must likewise be unnoticeable to radar bases as it sneaks past.

Grady says that the B-21 can deliver short- and long-range weapons with pinpoint accuracy. Long-range missiles include the B61-12 nuclear glide bomb and the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator bunker-busting bomb. Short-range missiles include the AGM-158 JASSM stealth cruise missile and the LRSO nuclear-armed cruise missile, which is still in development.

The Raider is a ghostly light grey in contrast to the B-2’s non-reflective black paint. The B-21 will be employed differently than the B-2, designed to slip into enemy airspace at low altitudes at night.

At high altitudes, however, where a muted grey blends in better with the surrounding sky and clouds than a short black silhouette, the new Raider with the streamlined tail seems likely to fly.

Due to the thinner air at higher altitudes, there is less air resistance, so planes can go farther and faster while staying out of most short-range air defences. Yet, long-range air defence radars and missiles become more of a threat the higher they fly. The shift reflects improved faith that the B-21 can withstand higher levels of exposure while still enjoying the benefits of high-altitude missions.

The term “optionally manned,” describing planes that can take off with or without humans on board, was not mentioned during the reveal. At first, the Pentagon put a lot of emphasis on missions with and without a man.

It probably wasn’t part of the B-21’s regular operational capabilities when it went into service because it wasn’t mentioned at the ceremony, even though many other things were. The technology that makes that possible will be ready for a while.

The Air Force might also need some time to devise a policy for sending B-21s on unmanned missions, weighing the risk of losing crew members against the risk of losing situational awareness and the ability to react quickly.

The removal and reapplication of radar-absorbent materials, in particular, require very specialised facilities, adding to the already very high operating costs of the B-2. Hence, only a few specially constructed airbases could support B-2 operations indefinitely. The speakers stressed that B-21s might attack from more sites in the global conflict in addition to mounting long-distance assaults from North America because of the aircraft’s reduced maintenance requirements. In a fierce conflict, enemies will try to shoot down your stealth bombers; thus, spreading out is crucial.

The Pentagon had a lot of trouble with its first stealth plane, so the Air Force and Northrop Grumman should be very proud that they could build the B-21 on time and within budget.

While CEO Kathy Warden acknowledged the significance of rigorous programme management, she also highlighted the significance of modern digital design tools that allow aviation engineers to experiment digitally with the design rather than creating dozens of pricey “one-off” physical prototypes. With this, Northrop created a real production line for the prototypes that can be used for series production because they are so close to the final configuration of production aircraft.

It is wonderful that digital tools were instrumental in directing the development of the B-21. It is even more wonderful that these tools have the potential to “usher in a new paradigm in aircraft design, development, and manufacturing” with a “new [faster-paced] acquisition model” that will help the development of future combat aircraft in general and the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) stealth fighter in particular. The Next Generation Attack Drone (NGAD) could follow B-21s on invasive raids far away.

Since the 1960s, U.S. military planes have been classified by function using standard letter designations such as “B” for the bomber, “C” for the cargo plane, “R” for the reconnaissance plane, and so on. The RC-135 is a freighter converted into a reconnaissance plane by adding a few letters to its name.

The B-21’s “long-range sensors,” as characterised by Admiral Grady, will play a significant role in long-endurance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations as well as electronic warfare and battle management of air and surface forces through aiding network command-and-control communications.

People have called the Raider the first “sixth-generation aircraft,” but this is debatable because “generation” is usually used to talk about fighters, not bombers.

All speakers touched on the B-21’s capacity to collaborate with foreign allies. The bomber may provide time-sensitive, mission-critical data to allied military units and command and control centres via datalinks. The F-22 Raptor needed to have this simple compatibility with other aircraft.

But there is also overt political symbolism. Bombers are typically considered offensive weapons, but the Raider primarily aims to protect U.S. partners in Asia and Europe from potential threats. The panellists also posited that a strong B-21 force could discourage aggressors from resorting to military action altogether.

Given how important it is for allies to work together, there may also be rumours that Australia, Japan, or the United Kingdom can buy their B-21s. The United States has shown signs of considering making such an offer to Australia as an alternative to nuclear-powered submarines. But it is still being determined whether or not these countries have enough money to buy even a small fleet of B-21s.

The Air Force will undoubtedly acquire 100 B-21s, but Austin stated that they would prefer to acquire 145 or 175 Raiders to give the United States an “advantage that will persist for decades.”

The bomber has “great bipartisan support in Congress,” according to Warden, who also mentioned 40 states that make parts for the plane and pledged to add “new companies” to our supplier base.

The Raiders have an open architecture, can be updated fast (“quick technological insertions,” said Warden), and can fit “weapons that haven’t even been dreamed of yet,” added Austin.

Northrop has completed six B-21 prototypes or is currently doing so. If all goes well, the first test flight might happen as early as 2023. Mission system integration will continue.

If all goes well, the revised design may enter mass production in 2025 using the same assembly line as the prototypes.

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