Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking in front of the hangar, said the aircraft demonstrated the Department of Defense’s longstanding commitment to building advanced capabilities that “will strengthen America’s ability to deter aggression today and in the future.” The stealth plane has “50 years of low-observable technological advancements” built into it, making it difficult for “even the most advanced air defense systems” to detect the B-21 in the sky, he said.
“The B-21 looked majestic,” Austin said. “But what’s under the frame and the space-age coating is even more impressive.”
Austin added that U.S. defense is rooted in deterrence, and the development of the B-21 was once again a hallmark.
“Once again, we have made it clear to any potential adversary that the risks and costs of aggression far outweigh any possible gains,” Austin said.
The program is expected to cost at least $80 billion, and the Air Force seeks at least 100 aircraft. It marks the U.S. military’s first aircraft to feature so-called sixth-generation technology, which relies on advanced artificial intelligence, computer networking and data fusion to assist pilots on long-range bombing missions that require them to enter and exit enemy airspace. The Air Force is also exploring whether the B-21 can fly long-range, though that could happen years after its first flight.
While top U.S. defense officials and company executives are celebrating its progress, much of the plan remains classified. Media attending the event in Palmdale had to abide by a set of ground rules, including a ban on the use of cellphones in viewing areas and, for visual journalists, restrictions on how the aircraft could be photographed.
There are six prototypes of the B-21, company officials said. The first test flight is expected next year.
Currently, the Raider is in “ground testing,” Northrop Grumman officials said, with Air Force and Northrop Grumman officials stress-testing to evaluate its application of the radar-deflecting coating and scrutinizing the Basic functions such as gliding.
More than 8,000 people are working on various aspects of the program, and aircraft parts are sourced from 40 states.
The Pentagon intends to replace aging B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer bombers with Raiders, phasing out older aircraft by the 2040s. The decades-old B-52 bomber may also be replaced by the B-21 in the coming years. Friday’s unveiling included flyovers of all three aging bombers.
Until 2006, the Ministry of Defense thought it could survive until 2037 with its current bomber fleet. But the Pentagon began studying alternatives for the next decade, and in 2014 launched a contract competition for a new long-range bomber.
The U.S. military has faced costly problems and delays over the years in developing other major weapons systems, including the advanced F-35 fighter jet that could fly alongside the B-21 in future operations.
Air Force and company officials said during a panel discussion with reporters Friday that the program continues to meet cost-to-service requirements, even as the per-serving cost continues to rise. In 2010, the service said it wanted to cost about $550 million per plane. The price has risen to $639 million in 2019, and costs are expected to continue climbing, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last year.
General Air Force Chief of Staff Charles “CQ” Brown told reporters in Palmdale that the development of the B-21 was a product of a partnership between the Air Force and Northrop Grumman. He noted that the plane’s nickname “Raider” was a tribute to Doolittle’s Commandos, American servicemen who launched a long and daring bombing raid against Japan in April 1942, right after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sent the U.S. Pushed into World War II a few months later.
“That spirit of innovation is behind us now,” Brown said, where the B-21 sat under a cape in the hangar ahead of the unveiling.
Northrop Grumman CEO Casey Worden said Friday the company iterated through thousands of versions of the plane before selecting a design. Some of its testing and development happens digitally before the company builds the hardware, limiting costs.
“In many ways,” Warden said, “we’re taking technology from the future and bringing it to the present and this aircraft.”