The orchestra blared, and the bombers were dragged out of the hangar. Sheets come off to reveal flying wings similar to those of the B-2—the Air Force’s last bomber, unveiled in 1988—but slightly smaller, with inlets that are more flush with the jet’s fuselage and may have better Invisibility.
“The defense of the United States will always be rooted in the deterrence of conflict,” Austin said a moment later. “We therefore again make it clear to any potential adversary that the risks and costs of aggression far outweigh any conceivable gains.”
At the end of the ceremony, a group of Northrop employees involved in the B-21 program chanted “America, America.”
The B-21 has been kept under wraps since the Air Force chose Northrop over Boeing to build it in a close competition in 2015. Unlike other classified programs, the Pentagon has openly acknowledged the existence of the new bomber — but nothing more. The Air Force has kept much of the plane’s information secret so potential adversaries such as China and Russia cannot steal its design or develop ways to shoot it down.
What the public does know is that the B-21 was built with next-generation stealth technology, designed to evade the most advanced radars. Austin touted “50 years of low-observable technological advancements that have been incorporated into this aircraft.”
“Even the most advanced air defense systems have difficulty detecting a B-21 in the air,” he said.
Bombers are designed to penetrate enemy air defenses and reach targets anywhere in the world—something that only about 10 percent of the bomber force currently can do, according to Northrop. The B-21 is more effective than any other long-range bomber in the world, Austin said, noting that “it doesn’t need to be deployed in theater or have logistical support to threaten any target.”
“Having a capability like this is very important for deterrence and being able to win a conflict if needed,” said a senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, discussing a sensitive topic ahead of the ceremony.
This will be especially important in the event of a U.S. conflict with China, which has dramatically increased its military capabilities over the past decade. For example, if China decided to invade Taiwan — which the Pentagon estimates could happen before 2027 — the B-21 would be able to respond on short notice, said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The B-21 is “China’s deterrent bomber,” Gunzinger said on a panel at the Air Force Association’s annual meeting in September.
The U.S. Air Force plans to buy at least 100 B-21s to replace its fleet of B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers, with the first deliveries expected in the mid-2020s. It will be able to carry nuclear and conventional weapons and be manned or unmanned, Northrop said.
Carrying an array of munitions with “amazing precision,” the B-21 will be able to support operations in “a full range of” warfare, just like the Air Force’s current bombers, Austin said. For example, the B-52 has dropped conventional bombs on ISIS targets in Syria, and it could also carry nuclear weapons in the event of such a conflict.
The Raider is also “versatile,” Austin said. “It can handle anything from intelligence gathering to battle management to integration with our allies and partners.”
The B-21 has an “open architecture” design, making it easier for the Air Force to swap out legacy systems for new technology. The approach was taken to help prevent the bomber, which was originally designed nearly a decade ago, from becoming obsolete amid rapid technological advances.
“So, as America continues to innovate, this bomber will be able to defend our country with new weapons that haven’t been built yet,” Austin said.
Unlike many recent military aircraft programs (most notably the controversial F-35 fighter jet), the new bomber has been kept on cost and on schedule. The Air Force capped unit costs at $500 million in 2010; in 2019, Northrop said the Air Force would target slightly more than $600 million, taking inflation into account.
In the coming months, the B-21 will undergo additional tests to ensure it is ready for its first flight, which Northrop said could happen in 2023.
The Raiders were named after the Doolittle Raiders who were famous for raiding Japan during World War II. To pick the name, then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and then-Chief of Air Staff Gen. David Goldfein calls for submissions and chooses from thousands of options, ranging from the ridiculous “Sneaky McBombFace” to the ominous “Black Death”.
The first of the new B-21s will be based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, where formal training will also take place. Maintenance and sustainment will be performed at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, while testing and evaluation will be conducted at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Other major contractors include Pratt & Whitney, which provided the engines; BAE Systems, most likely building the electronic warfare system; GKN Aerospace; Janiki Industries; Orbital ATK, acquired by Northrop; Rockwell Collins; Capital Alpha Partners analyst Byron Callan said Spirit AeroSystems.