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B-21 Raider: The Right Strategic Bomber For A New Age Of Air Warfare

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

The Air Force has announced that the unveiling of its new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, will take place on December 2. This program is an industry-government success story: so far, the program is on time and on budget. Part of the reason for its success is that the B-21 is, in many respects, a logical evolutionary step from what has come before.

B-21 Raider: Something Special

The design itself and many of the major systems are advanced but not revolutionary. The real advances have been made in avionics, electronic systems, stealth features, and weapons that will enable the Raider to operate in intense anti-air environments. The B-21 will also benefit from the industry’s development of open systems architectures that permit rapid and continuous upgrading of systems and software to improve performance.

It is remarkable, given the history of schedule slippages and cost overruns in major defense programs, that the B-21 is on schedule and on budget. The program began in 2015; seven years later, Northrop-Grumman is rolling out the first aircraft. This makes it the Department of Defense’s (DoD) most successful rapid acquisition program.

Technical Readiness

The B-21’s success is largely a function of the Air Force’s insistence on high technical readiness levels for many of the critical components in the designs proposed by companies competing for the B-21 contract. Engine maker Pratt & Whitney has reportedly leveraged decades of experience with the F-35’s F135 engine, including in the advanced Enhanced Engine Package, in the design of the B-21’s power plant. It is also a reflection of the Air Force’s wisdom in avoiding the temptation to use the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented by a new strategic bomber purchase to gold-plate the requirements. The aircraft is reported to fly at high subsonic speed and has a smaller payload than the B-2 bomber.

B-21 In a New Age of Warfare

The key question is whether the new platform will fill the Air Force’s needs in a new age of air warfare. The Raider is entering service at a time when all major forces involved in air warfare, both offensive and defensive, are in transition. The most obvious changes are rapid developments in air defenses, not only in weapons but also in the ability to integrate multiple systems into an interlocking area-denial capability. Another change is the proliferation of strike capabilities, both onboard payloads and long-range unmanned aerial systems (UASs).

Increasingly, the future of air warfare will be about manned-unmanned teaming. Also at play is the integration of sensors across all domains of warfare to pass information rapidly to the tactical edge, which would give airborne platforms like the B-21 an unparalleled ability to respond to their environments. A final change is the growth potential for the Air Force to deploy sensors, communications packages, and even offensive weapons on non-traditional platforms such as aerial refueling tankers and cargo aircraft.

The Raider could be the central player in revolutionizing the strike capability of the U.S. Air Force. The focus is no longer on just the capabilities of a fighter or bomber but also on accompanying capabilities that will be integrated with current and future platforms. The Air Force sees the B-21 and the future Next Generation Air Dominance platform as part of a family of systems.

The Air Force describes the concept for the Raider this way:

“The B-21 Raider will be a component of a larger family of systems for conventional Long Range Strike, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, electronic attack, communication, and other capabilities. It will be nuclear capable and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations. Additionally, it will be able to employ a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions.”

All of the Services, but perhaps the Air Force most of all, are moving to a distributed warfare paradigm. This involves proliferating sensors and communications nodes, connecting to the capabilities of the other Services, adding weapons delivery capabilities to non-traditional platforms, and making extensive use of unmanned systems.

The Stealth Truck

What unique capabilities and opportunities does the B-21 bring to the game? It was designed from its inception to be a sophisticated, stealthy “truck” that could incorporate future generations of sensors, electronics, and weapons, both nuclear and conventional. Its advanced electronics, stealth features, and ability to exploit offboard sensing will allow the B-21 to defeat adversaries’ integrated air defenses. With the proliferation of unmanned platforms and technologies, the Raider has the potential to be a long-range penetrating mothership, deploying long-range missiles such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), unmanned platforms, and air-launched effects such as decoys, jammers, anti-radar weapons or even direct attack munitions.

Operating in a passive mode, the B-21, like the F-35, can act like an airborne command post, directing swarms of manned and unmanned platforms. In this role, the Raider could provide critical real-time targeting information for long-range Army and Navy weapons.

Senior Air Force officials have made it clear that they see the new bombers as vital to countering adversaries’ anti-access/area denial strategies. The U.S. needs a long-range, stealthy strike system that can defeat enemies’ potential efforts to keep U.S. forces at a distance or hide targets in their vast interior spaces. This was recognized as a requirement by Air Force Chief of Staff General C.Q. Brown who said, “The B-21 Raider program is foundational to the Air Force’s operational imperative for an effective, long-range strike family of systems to guarantee our ability to strike any target, anytime, anywhere, even in the most contested environment.”

The B-21 has one additional noteworthy feature: its ability to conduct direct attacks on hardened and deeply buried facilities. These attacks generally require overflying targets, which would be heavily defended.

B-21

Artist rendering of a B-21 Raider concept in a hangar at Dyess, Air Force Base, Texas, one of the future bases to host the new airframe. (Courtesy photo by Northrop Grumman)

While the B-21, by all accounts, has the qualities needed in a new strategic bomber, the question remains of whether it will be procured in sufficient numbers. The Air Force’s stated requirement is just one hundred, but experts have argued that double that figure would make more sense given the advances in air defenses and the aging of the existing bomber fleet.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.


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Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    November 23, 2022 at 6:38 pm

    B-21 is a manifestation of might is right mentality of people allegedly ‘fighting’ for democracy and human rights.

    The world witnessed what happened in the middle east in march 2003 when the coalition forces imposed democracy and human rights on a nation that didn’t declare war against them and didn’t have the alleged WMDs.

    Prior to that war, the coalition forces were furiously bombing that nation night and day, while also imposing crippling sanctions that directly caused 5 million child & infant deaths.

    All that for the great cause of democracy and human rights. Fighting like gates of hell had been opened for shock and awe warfare.

    B-21 will therefore be expected to open the gates of megiddo for the world.

  2. pagar

    November 23, 2022 at 8:03 pm

    B-21 will produce a new strategy for world rivalry.

    Putin in august 2022 during the moscow Army-2022 expo, in an obvious reply to the west’s growing military arsenal, said “russia is willing to share our advanced military tech with close allies” meaning new western weapons like himars and B-21 will be met with russian-origin ICBMs and stealth fighter jets like Su-75 available for export to third countries.

    Thus B-21 will herald a new arms race with everybody rushing forward helter skelter to reach the tape at the finish. WW3 then?

  3. GhostTomahawk

    November 23, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    So what we have is a modernized B2 Spirit. Which is why it took only 7 years to get to production. Essentially this is a giant govt spending program for the Northrop team to hit a quick rain maker payday.

    America has long range subsonic bombers already. The B2 and B52. Both have better cargo capacity. America has a better long range SUPERSONIC bomber in the B1. Which also has better capacity and is SUPERSONIC.

    So stop wasting our money. Come up with something truly better or just upgrade what we have.

    Currently our “stealth” fighters are little more that low vis missile trucks and not air superiority fighters. So…we are building things and not even using them properly. I say use the old stuff that’s paid off.

  4. Steven

    November 23, 2022 at 9:45 pm

    China is peaking now, these bombers wont be ready for years after the fact. Russia is out of the picture. Procured numbers will be low I bet.

  5. will

    November 23, 2022 at 11:56 pm

    Since the B-21 bomber has a limited range and is not a strategic bomber in the true sense of the word, it must be deployed close to China in order to be an effective deterrent, and that location is most likely Guam. Guam is 3,000 kilometers away from China in a straight line, and the B-21 would need to fly at least 7,000 kilometers in a round trip.

    But Guam is within the fire range of China’s rocket force DF-26 ballistic missiles and PLA Air Force H-20 bombers, so once the B-21 bombers are deployed to Guam they will become the focus of Chinese land-based and air-based missiles. Once a conflict breaks out between the U.S. and China, the probability of the B-21 bombers being able to take off safely will be significantly reduced, and they will likely be wiped out by Chinese missiles.

    In addition, China’s anti-stealth technology is at the international leading level, in addition to various anti-stealth radars and quantum radars, but also the construction of air-based and space-based reconnaissance system, to all kinds of stealth targets have good detection capabilities. Once the B-21 reveals its position, it is tantamount to declaring its own death. China’s sea-based 055 and 052D destroyers, air-based J-16 and J-20 warplanes, and land-based Red Flag-9 and Red Flag-16 combat platforms are all capable of intercepting this subsonic bomber at long range and not giving the B-21 bomber a chance to approach China’s airspace. The U.S. would be wise to maintain competition and cooperation with China, and not to think of rushing into war with China, otherwise not only would the U.S. military bases in Guam and the Pacific not be preserved, but it might even lose its status as a first-class country.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 24, 2022 at 12:03 am

    “Increasingly, the future of air warfare will be about manned-unmanned teaming.”

    Nonsense, manned combat aircraft must be held in reserve until unmanned platforms have been attrited to ineffective numbers. It is the Luddite Pilot’s cabal that is demanding the manned-unmanned teaming in order to remain relevant, and justify their insanely expensive rides (Combat Power/per Dollar). Unmanned combat aircraft have been on the frontlines for 20+ years without any teaming. Shackling them to a manned aircraft limits their strategic utility, and is a stupid mistake. UAV’s carry all the same smart weapons/sensors/etc. that manned aircraft do, at a fraction of the price for delivery to the battlefield.

  7. self

    November 24, 2022 at 2:44 am

    Directed Energy weapons. The B-21 “Black Jack” will have a powerful beam weapon for offense and defense. A laser cannon, if you will.
    It is the 1st American bomber, or any bomber, to have an ability to fight back and destroy aggressor fighter jets and their AA weapons and Ground based weapons using it’s beam weapon.

  8. Univ of Saigon 68

    November 24, 2022 at 10:19 am

    Here’s a ‘stealth’ question which one of the commentators may be able to answer.

    Radar is a beam of negatively charged particles – electrons – that bounce back when they hit a target, revealing the target location. Would it be possible to positively charge the target aircraft/ship so that the negative particles are absorbed instead of returned to the point of origin?

    If this is a stupid question feel free to unload on me, but it’s based upon my high school physics class some sixth years ago.

  9. Joe Dokes

    November 24, 2022 at 10:59 am

    Saigon 68

    Radar is NOT a beam of electrons, it’s comprised of photons, i.e., the exchange particle (boson) of the electromagnetic force. It is distinct from particle beam weapons which employ high energy atomic or subatomic particles.

  10. Univ of Saigon 68

    November 24, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    Joe, thanks for the clarification.

  11. from Russia with love

    November 24, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    @Joe Dokes
    “Radar is NOT a beam of electrons, it’s comprised of photons, i.e., the exchange particle (boson) of the electromagnetic force.”
    I propose a simpler and more understandable formulation for the layman: radar radiation is a wave. the radar receives the reflected wave.
    I will also add a couple of unpleasant facts for the stealth fans.
    1) anti-radar coatings can absorb waves of a certain length. coatings designed to absorb the millimeter range very poorly absorb the decimeter range and do not absorb the meter range at all (over-the-horizon radars).
    2) the turbulence created by the aircraft is visible to the radar in the same way as the aircraft itself.

  12. Robert research

    November 24, 2022 at 8:46 pm

    403forbidden and Pagar are paid russian trolls (or maybe the same troll).
    They also used the name Alex and FromRussiaWithLove to comment in the past.
    Just read their comments in every single article about Russia, it’s a coordinated effort to divide, confuse, misguide..

  13. from Russia with love

    November 28, 2022 at 5:11 am

    Ukrainian troll Robert research exposed everyone. 🤣🤣🤣
    evil Russians want to confuse real idiots, in the sense of “patriots of America and Ukraine”, and write confusing messages about the basics of modern physics in order to cause discord among believers!😎

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