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Why the U.S. Air Force Needs the B-21 Stealth Bomber

B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber
B-21 Raider. Image: Creative Commons.

The B-21 Raider, named after the Doolittle Raiders of World War II fame, could make its maiden flight sometime in mid-2022, according to reporting by Air Force Magazine. B-21 airframe number one has already completed, with construction on the second airframe already underway.

B-21 assembly initially hit logistical roadblocks related to component procurement due to the ongoing pandemic, though parts bottleneck has since been solved and production has continued according to schedule. It is estimated that the Air Force will buy around 150 airframes, but regardless of what final production numbers look like, Air Force officials estimate that the B-21 will enter service in 2026 or 2027.

B-21 Raider, Explained

The B-21 is to fly, at least initially, alongside the United States other strategic bomber aircraft, including the B-2 Spirit bomber (also manufactured by Northrup Grumman), the supersonic B-1 Lancer, and the B-52 Stratofortress.

The B-21’s characteristics are a closely-guarded secret. To date, the B-21 is known only from a couple of artistic digital renderings that have been released by the U.S. Air Force. In the images, the B-21’s general shape can be seen and is strongly reminiscent of Northrup Grumman’s B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, both flying wing designs. Engine air intakes flush with the bomber’s fuselage can also be seen, as can the airframe’s nose and part of the outside wing.

Although the B-21 Raider’s general shape is similar to the B-2, they will be substantially different aircraft. The B-21 sports a tricycle-style landing gear assembly like the B-2, though the B-21’s two main wheel assemblies have just two wheels each. This could indicate the B-21’s probable smaller size compared to the B-2, which has four wheels on each of its two rear landing assemblies. Unlike the B-2, which has a sawtooth-shaped tail, the B-21 will likely have a cranked-kite, diamond-shaped rear fuselage, which some experts suggest would optimize the B-21 for stealth at high-altitude.

The B-21 will use a version of the F-35’s engines, possibly up to four of them, helping to keep costs down, and will most likely have a radar absorbant coating that is more robust and less maintenance-intense than the B-2’s. Air Force officials have described the B-21 as extremely low-observable, compared to the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters which are supposed to be very low-observable. It has also been suggested that the B-21 could fly without a human pilot, though that may be difficult to confirm.

Still, less is known about the B-21’s proposed fighter escort. In the event of a conflict with China, one of the B-21’s likely high priorities would be to target and destroy missile installations in the country’s west that could likely cover China as well parts of the South China Sea and Western Pacific in a missile blanket. In order to penetrate that airspace deep within Chinese territory, the B-21 may need a stealthy fighter escort to accompany it to the target.

Postscript

Once the B-21 enters service in the mid-to late-2020, it will be badly needed. The United States’ bomber force isn’t getting any younger: By 2025, the U.S. Air Force’s B-52s will be over 60 years old, and the only other stealth bomber in USAF service will be nearly 30. The B-21 won’t come a moment too soon.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Dan Mullock

    January 21, 2021 at 9:02 am

    We only need the B21 if we need a penetrating strategic bomber, which was of dubious value 50 years ago. No US bomber has flown a truly strategic mission since WW2. The B-1s are ageing out because they were used in a no threat environment during the Afghan/Iraq conflicts way too much. Not a single one of those missions was strategic. And a penetrating bomber that needs a fighter escort is not really a penetrating bomber, is it? Like large aircraft carriers, the strategic bomber is the few, large, and expensive and requires a permanent expensive support infrastructure. The future, which is here even now, is the many, smart, small, unmanned, precision guided munitions. Think loyal wingman carrying long range PGM’s. The USAF, like the USN, likes its white elephant large, expensive assets. This needs to end.

    • Iain

      January 21, 2021 at 6:43 pm

      Biden will cancel anything that could be seen as a threat to China

  2. Buck Fiden

    January 21, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    In the coming age of hypersonic missiles and drones that can be controlled in flight, will there be a need for a manned bomber. The old idea of recall ability if the mission changes.

  3. Oldcolt357

    January 21, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    I suspect the B21 generally won’t actually penetrate enemy air space but instead remain un-detectable loitering close by with guided / hyper-sonic missiles. Kinda like an air-born Ohio class sub.

  4. T. M. Ryan

    January 22, 2021 at 12:58 pm

    You didn’t tell us the per unit acquisition cost and overall cost of the program (acquisition, operation, parts and maintenance). I am guessing it is astronomical. The Germans took a similar approach in WWII, instead of opting for tanks that were mass producible on automobile assembly lines they kept designing bigger, more powerful, and better tanks than we were producing but they were not able to make as many. Maybe the best tanks of the war but too few and too late. We went with the Sherman which was no match for the German models but we made so damn many and they were lighter and faster. I fear that buying a few big ticket top of the line items we will be setting ourselves up to be overwhelmed in the same manner by a determined enemy able to mass produce weapons that may not be up to the standards of ours but they will overwhelm us in the same way. We also run the risk of new technologies that defeat the stealth advantage by using other methods to detect the bomber. That would leave us with a few very expensive, slow, moderate capacity bombers that would need fighter protection all the time. But who knows, this all could be a ruse to get hundreds of billions of dollars to develop black technology that we have reverse engineered from extra terrestrial craft like the one purported to have crashed at Roswell. With the government and the MI complex you never know and you probably won’t ever find out.

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