Radar Absorbing Materials Key to B-21 Raider Reliability: Last Friday, after years of hype and build-up, the public was provided its first glimpse of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, the United States Air Force’s future long-range strategic bomber. Described as a “sixth-generation” aircraft, the Raider certainly received a lot of attention – and both the defense contractor and U.S. military even took to social media to promote the unveiling.
It was the first new strategic bomber to be unveiled in a generation and the first since the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit made its public debut back in November 1988.
In an almost ironic twist, the event at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California, facility – which was even live-streamed for anyone around the world to view – was meant to highlight how difficult it will be for our adversaries to actually track the bomber on radar. While similar in appearance to the B-2, the Raider is actually a generational leap forward in aircraft technology and development.
The B-21 has been noted for being designed with an open systems architecture that would enable rapid future capability integration to keep pace with the highly contested threat environment. In addition, the Raider’s design is based on firm requirements with existing and mature technology to control program costs. In fact, the plane’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, has been directed to use production processes, tooling, and workforce that ensures sustained and seamless production while avoiding unnecessary costs.
Radar Absorbing Materials Make B-21 Lethal
Its radar absorbing materials maintainability could also be a factor that allows the B-21 Raider to take on U.S. strategic bombing burden, suggested researchers at international data analytics firm GlobalData.
“One of the key features, and best kept secrets, of the B-21 Raider program has been the introduction of the next generation of radar absorbing materials (RAM),” said Harry Boneham, aerospace analyst at GlobalData.
The RAM could dramatically enhance the B-21’s stealth capabilities, far beyond even current generation aircraft.
“While all stealth platforms such as the F-35 rely upon designs that minimize radar returns – thus diminishing the aircraft’s radar signature – the B-2 and the B-21 go a step further and utilize materials that also absorb radar pings. This further diminishes radar returns and renders them extremely challenging to detect,” explained Boneham via an email. “The trade-off has historically been that RAM coatings are time-consuming and extremely costly to maintain, thus limiting their widespread use.”
However, Northrop Grumman has stated that the maintainability of the new coating system is a key feature of the B-21.
“This maintainability could be a factor explaining the faith the US Air Force has put in the B-21, committing to procure over 100 platforms and letting it comprise the backbone of its bombing fleet,” Boneham continued.
“In a future conflict, it will be necessary for aircraft to be rapidly serviced with short turnaround, and perhaps not in dedicated facilities. In conflicts against near-peer adversaries such as China, long-range stealth bombing will be an essential capability, and the fact that the Air Force feels confident that the B-21 can be kept at readiness to fulfill this capability alone speaks volumes to the advancements made in the B-21’s RAM coating.”
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.