The bomber might be the stealthiest airplane ever made, and there will be a lot of them.
In comments given during a keynote address at the annual Air Force Association’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall confirmed that there are five B-21 Raiders currently in production.
His comments about the new stealth bomber were part of a message highlighting the importance of modernizing the Air Force before China outpaces the United States. Kendall emphasized his China credentials, saying that he had “worked hard to get this specific job” because not enough is being done within the flying branch to modernize, in his opinion.
The threat posed by China’s military is broad and includes “hypersonic weapons, a full range of anti-satellite systems, plus cyber, electronic warfare, and challenging air-to-air weapons.” Kendall also explained that in his view, China has “invested smartly in anti-access area denial systems designed to defeat US power projection,” with particular investment put into “precision weapons of steadily increasing ranges.”
Kendall sees the role of the Air and Space Forces as of paramount importance should a conflict with China erupt unexpectedly.
“Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to control the global high ground. Only the Air and Space Forces can project power on short notice to anywhere that it is needed. Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to confront and defeat aggression immediately, wherever it occurs,” Kendall explained. “Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to come to the aid of our global allies and partners with little to no notice when and where aggression occurs.”
And in case of a conflict in the Indo-Pacific, the United States Air Force’s first responder will be the B-21 Raider.
The B-21 Raider, named after the Doolittle Raiders of World War II fame, is outwardly somewhat similar to the B-2 stealth bomber, the United States stealthy bomber. However, while both airframes use a flying wing design, the B-21 is slightly smaller, and Air Force officials have explained that the newer airplane’s stealth abilities are two or more generations stealthier than its predecessor. In addition, the plane’s stealth coatings are believed to be more robust and less maintenance intensive.
The B-21 is still a highly classified program, making additional details about the bomber challenging to come by. Even just how many the Air Force wants to buy are not known. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the program mainly adheres to budget constraints, which could bode well for the project long-term.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.