What we think we know: Though outwardly similar to the B-2 Spirit, the B-21 Raider is expected to have significantly greater stealth capabilities thanks to a host of new technologies.
The B-21 Is Nearly Here
One of the biggest differences between this latest artistic rendering of the Raider and earlier artwork is the B-21’s windows: rather than two simple, forward-facing windows, this B-21 concept art reveals a total of four windows — two of which appear to split the difference between forward and side-facing.
These two window’s shape forms a sort of down to up slant and are rather novel. This kind of window shape wouldn’t afford pilots much visibility upward, but it could potentially make preserving the airframe’s stealthy profile more difficult. The space between the airframe and windows — essentially the seal between them — would need to be incredibly small and smooth in order to present enemy radar with a uniform surface that generates less radar bounce-back.
A Big Deal
Once in service, the B-21 Raider will succeed the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and take over that platform’s role as the Air Force’s long-range, stealthy strategic bomber, forming the air leg of the United States’ nuclear triad. It is expected to be operation sometime in the mid-2020s.
Although the Air Force has been very secretive about the new bomber, some details have been gleaned either through information directly stated by the Air Force or by an analysis of some of the B-21’s anticipated support structure. The Air Force has explicitly stated that the Raider’s stealth capabilities are two generations beyond that of the B-2, which is widely considered the stealthiest bomber to have ever flown.
100 Stealth Bombers?
One revealing piece of information in the official Air Force fact sheet is the stated procurement of “minimum 100 aircraft.” Ultimately the Air Force has affirmed that their current bomber fleet of B-1 Lancers and B-2 Spirits would be phased out in favor of a two bomber fleet made up of modified but incredibly aged B-52 Stratofortress bombers as well as the brand-new B-21 Raiders. Over 100 B-21s would have to be ultimately manufactured to preserve the total number of bombers currently in service with the Air Force.
“Nuclear modernization is a top priority for the Department of Defense and the Air Force, and B-21 is key to that plan,” Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office explained in the Air Force statement that went along with the new artwork. “The built-in feature of open systems architecture on the B-21 makes the bomber effective as the threat environment evolves. This aircraft design approach sets the nation on the right path to ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.”
It should be kept in mind that while fascinating, the artwork released by the Air Force may not be the final glimpse of what the B-21 Raider will ultimately look like — both for reasons of secrecy or due to late-stage design changes. Alternatively, any misrepresentation of the B-21 could be a purposeful misrepresentation of the airframe in order to hide or otherwise mask some of the advanced stealth bomber’s capabilities.
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.