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China Is Freaked Out: The B-21 Spirit Stealth Bomber Is Coming

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

The B-21 Raider stealth bomber has all the makings of an Air Force legend. How much will it cost? When will it fly and join the US military? Here is what we know right now: 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.

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.

B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber

Construction of a B-21 Raider Environmental Protection Shelter prototype is completed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 26, 2021. Ellsworth AFB was selected as the test site for the B-21 EPS as it provides the most extreme and diverse weather conditions to test the temporary structures. The testing for the EPS prototypes at Ellsworth AFB does not interfere with Air Force compliance to the National Environmental Protection Act/Environmental Impact Statement preparation for the first B-21 Main Operating Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman First Class Quentin Marx)

B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber

Earlier artist rendering.
Image: U.S. Air Force

B-21 Raider

B-2 Stealth Bomber. Image: DOD Flickr.

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.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Philip Spector

    February 5, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    Terrific reporting
    Phil

  2. Catapult

    February 5, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    Manned bombers are obsolete.
    1. Too slow (vs. any missile)
    2. Too expensive.

    If it’s so stealthy, why will it need a fighter escort?

  3. William Ford

    February 5, 2022 at 6:13 pm

    China isn’t freaked out at all!!!! They stole all the blueprints the moment they were made and already have the next b21 stealth ccp style. That’s all they do is copy everyone!!! That’s how their nation built the weapons,ships, tanks and anything else they can steal to get ahead. They didn’t test prototypes for 10yrs or try different ideas and blunder. They stole documents and made them their own!!!!! Screw china!!!!!!

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