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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

B-21 Raider Unveiling: A Message to China and Russia? You Bet It Was

B-21 Raider
B-21 Raider. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force.

Friday night the U.S. Air Force rolled out its B-21 Raider stealth bomber for the first time, showing a select group of attendees the ultraclassified warplane. The Raider represents an update to the quarter-century-old B-2 Spirit flying wing, but it will be bought in sufficient numbers to replace much of the current inventory, including not just the B-2 but the non-stealthy B-1B Bone. Despite the pomp, though, the Air Force went to extreme lengths not to give away too much about the design. The B-21 is a B-2 lookalike, and yet the organizers forbade attendees to bring in cellphones or other cameras. They carefully managed the angles from which the audience could overlook the plane, for fear of divulging clues as to what makes the new bomber tick.

Etc.

But why show it at all? If revealing secret information is such a concern, it would seem best to keep the B-21 indoors, out of sight of nosey foreign intelligence services. The answer is that the U.S. Air Force was engaging in what defense scholars call “selective disclosure.” Concealing next-generation weaponry is imperative by strictly martial logic. It’s foolish to expose a new system to the glare of publicity. Yet there’s strategic and political goodness in displaying armaments like the Raider during peacetime strategic competition. Selective disclosure puts important audiences—prospective foes as well as allies and friends—on notice that the U.S. military has developed an imposing, perhaps war-winning new weapon system.

The B-21 rollout was a venture in messaging and branding.

And an important one.

In peacetime competition, there are no battles for air supremacy or, in the case of the B-21, struggles to put ordnance on target on the earth’s surface. But it is possible to fight virtual battles in the minds of observers able to shape the competition’s outcome. If influential observers believe a potential combatant would have worn in wartime, it “wins” a peacetime showdown.

Strategist Edward Luttwak makes a couple of related points. One, military hardware—planes, ships, tanks—amount to “black boxes” in peacetime. Presumably you know a great deal about your own armaments, but foreign intelligence services can only estimate what your armory can do in action.

In other words, they have to extrapolate from scraps of data—the fewer the better. They can peer at the outside of an aircraft like the B-21, once it becomes operational. But they can’t peek inside, exploring its innards to glean detailed information and insight about its combat efficacy. The black-box dynamic has been in force since the inception of mechanized warfare, but it’s doubly relevant in this age of artificial intelligence and machine learning, not to mention aircraft design and low-observable technology meant to help stealth aircraft elude radar detection.

To wit: U.S. Air Force officialdom insists, tantalizingly, that the B-21 has moved on significantly from the B-2 by every parameter. But they don’t say how. Their coquettishness is deliberate.

And two, Luttwak notes that the political purpose of arms and military maneuvers is to cast a “shadow” across councils in hostile capitals. By flourishing expeditionary air forces, fleets of ships, or ground-force divisions in an impressive manner, U.S. commanders attempt to convince an antagonist it would be the likely loser in a trial of arms. A rational antagonist would abjure a confrontation if persuaded it couldn’t win. Deterrence would prevail. Or U.S. commanders can try to convince allies, partners, and friends of the same thing, showing that America is fully capable of honoring its commitments to their security. They will take heart if convinced.

In short, the deeper and darker the shadow U.S. forces cast across Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, the brighter the prospects of deterring or coercing them without actual resort to arms. And the stronger U.S. alliances will be.

So, provided it’s carefully choreographed, as U.S. Air Force magnates seem to have done, selective disclosure safeguards critical military secrets while yielding significant political gain in terms of deterrence, coercion, and reassurance. It balances martial necessity with political entrepreneurship.

Give red teams something to guess about—and keep them guessing.

B-21

B-21 Raider. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    December 4, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    B-21’s real message to the world is USA ready to use force to impose itself on the world.

    Makes one think where is man headed for in the age of technology and human progress.

    Also makes one think of past events when advanced nations first got hold of fast bombers.

    Fast bombers (schnellbombers in German) first appeared in the early thirties and unfortunately they are forever remembered for their use in terror bombing.

    B-21 will definitely follow them in trudging the same path to eternal fame in the annals of human history.

    B-21 will be useful to impose force on weak nations but useless for use against nations possessing nuclear arsenals.

    Imagine someone with a B-21 attempting to assault north Korea. Does he fully understand the consequences or inevitable blowback to his move.

    Or imagine trying to do the same against nations with nuclear arsenals and a vast collection of space weapons.

    The effort would be equivalent to John Dillinger using his heavy weapon to raid the high street bank.

    Raiding a man’s home on a rural farm is one thing but raiding a bank in town is altogether something else.

    The moral of the illustrative story is b-21 will get uncle Sam in hot water if he uses b-21 for nefarious purposes.

    Nations today don’t need b-21s because today technology has gone far ahead to enable them to build spaceplanes.

    Like today, you don’t need a heavy weapon to rob a bank. You have people using ransomware and digital hacking to get money from a bank.

    You only use your heavy weapon to rob a poor soul staggering his way along a deserted back alley.

  2. Jimmyf40

    December 4, 2022 at 9:18 pm

    The appearance of raider is a manifestation of pax americana’s reckless perpetual infatuation with force and violence and destruction, and big buckets of blood and gore.

    It’s the latest one, but likely not the last.

    Recall what happened to the red indian nations of north America. Wiped out, neutered, fully emasculated. Amen.

    Recall the bloodily famous banana wars waged in the southern new hemisphere. Innocent people paid a heavy price. They later led to the comment that wars are nothing but a racket. Just like urban mafia criminal rackets. Amen.

    Recall what happened to rural villagers in the Philippines, like in Samar. Wiped out.

    Recall what happened to civilians in Germany, Japan and areas occupied by the two. Wiped out. Burned out.

    Fast forward to late 20th and the 21st century. We have the shock-and-awe wars and the forever wars and the proxy wars and coming future wars.

    Wars, wars, wars and more wars. Mantra of uncle Sam. Forever.Until arrival of judgement Day.

  3. Putin Apologist

    December 4, 2022 at 11:17 pm

    Surely they must have been shaking in their boots in “Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran”… or a least they will be if the damn thing ever flies.

  4. Commentar

    December 5, 2022 at 12:28 am

    The message hurled at Russia and china is crystal clear.

    If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad will come to the mountain. Or something to such an effect.

    If Russia and china are afraid to wage war against US, US will wage war against them. By using the all-powerful, all-invincible b-21 r-a-i-d-e-r.

    Thus US is now forcing both Russia and china into a life-altering or destiny-changing thermonuclear struggle.

    There’s only one winner. The Great Harvester of the ages.

    Therefore, Russia and china must begin keeping thermo nukes in space. ASAP. No time to lose. No time to be second best. The carpophorus of the century has rung his bell.

  5. le sith rouge

    December 5, 2022 at 2:20 am

    Horten 229 (before the decadence of Europe and the “great replacement”)
    And Von Braun sent 15 Apollo rockets without failure.
    US-Woke and its whore UE-hijab our ennemies.

    “Multiculturalism is in its essence anti-European civilization. It is basically an anti-Western ideology.” Huntington

  6. Arash

    December 5, 2022 at 5:30 am

    A plane that doesn’t work yet and when it does, wouldn’t change the strategic picture one bit!

    There is no such a thing as a stealth plane. It’s impossible to make an object “stealth” across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. (The fact that you can see this plane with your eyes says it’s not “stealth” in the visible spectrum!)
    And no plane can hide the heat emanated from its engines or heat generated through friction with the air.

    Heat is graveyard of all energies.

    Every drop of fuel that is put in this plane will turn into heat one way or the other throughout the flight of this plane and that heat is detectable.

    But all of that is besides the point.
    Take Iran for example. Iran has long recognized the reality that it cannot match the might of US military and has adopted asymmetrical tactics.
    You can defeat Iran’s air defenses with this plane and bomb critical Iranian facilities if you want. Iran has more than 50 “missile cities” deep in the mountains across the country. Some buried up to 800 m deep! Iran will always have enough second strike firepower to pound every piece of critical infrastructure in the Mideast to rubber in and make the attacker pay a heavy price for the intrusion.

    So no. This lates wunderwaffe does not change the strategic picture one bit.
    America would be better served if the rulin elite were to construct a mile or two of high speed rail instead of these wunderwaffe!

  7. mahdi

    December 5, 2022 at 5:55 am

    good

  8. Chris Lockhart

    December 5, 2022 at 8:38 am

    And yet with all that deliberate stage-management, they couldn’t be bothered to straighten the lines on the American flag. It doesn’t look intimidating when you don’t even make your bed right.

  9. Steve Wills

    December 5, 2022 at 9:20 am

    Why does the B-21 get a complete pass when it is a very expensive airplane. Buying 100 B-21’s that last 30 years is estimated to cost the taxpayers $203 billion. Each plane is $700m. Good choice? Not sure

  10. Goofy

    December 5, 2022 at 9:54 am

    Putin said he was to denazify Ukraine 🇺🇦 viva Ukraine which is ridiculous if he wanted to denazify fascist white supremacy factions he only needed to look at Russia its inundated with fascist neo nazi Russian barbarian scum.

  11. Jerome

    December 5, 2022 at 10:24 am

    How can one determine if the B-21 has the Islamic Republic concerned?
    See the ignorantly critical comments from semiliterate Iranians above.

  12. Joseph

    December 5, 2022 at 11:44 am

    Right… What kind of message is the US sending to anyone with a plane mock-up that has yet to fly…? And, which is so expensive that perhaps a dozen might be built instead of the 100…
    By the time this white elephant is available, Russia’s radar technologies will be able to acquire target quality signatures on the B-21.
    Mr. Holmes is merely a mouthpiece for the Military Industrial Complex.

  13. Brian Foley

    December 5, 2022 at 11:45 am

    …and here I thought the B-21 was meant to intimidate Liechtenstein.

  14. GhostTomahawk

    December 5, 2022 at 11:46 am

    How many do we have again? Exactly. Zero. Our adversaries aren’t any more worried today than they were yesterday. America has no secrets because it’s govt can’t keep them. Our politicians are for sale and foreign intelligence operatives are embedded in every level of the military complex. They already knew about this plane.

  15. Ant Miller

    December 5, 2022 at 11:55 am

    Very interesting point that until used, systems like the B-21 are largely a mystery, and can only be countered by speculative, risky, and expensive measures which may prove useless, or pointless, or both.

    So I am led to wonder whether there isn’t also a value in maintaining multiple tiers of capabilities. And that then raises the question of whether the USAF or NATO more widely wouldn’t be wise to develop and field a less capable, but still effective and survivable interdiction platform. One that could be deployed in less ‘hot’ environments without compromising the mystery and resource sink that these top level systems represent.

    A next gen strike eagle or tornado replacement from european allies could be a very useful way to ensure the B-21 keeps the opposition guessing.

  16. Arash

    December 5, 2022 at 12:42 pm

    Jerome:

    Oh yeah we are semiliterate. How many languages do you speak?
    Nothing say America is back better than an 80 something years old president who keep shaking hands with invisible men, introducing a plane that doesn’t fly and changes nothing!

  17. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    December 5, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    This site continues to draw Russian/Chinese/Iranian trolls like flies.
    The US is facing numerous powerful threats – most of which are wielding weapons designs/technology stolen from the US. To not move the bar is to have a death wish – thank God for US innovation.

  18. PolicyWonk

    December 5, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    In the USA, it is fairly straightforward keeping development processes secret. But once they have to begin testing, in open air and/or in the skies, then they ultimately have to start divulging the presence of something like this.

    The B-21 has been in the works for years – long before Russia made a pain of itself by invading Ukraine. China is a much clearer threat than Russia is, given the size and scope of their military build-up, and new-found diplomatic belligerence.

    The roll-out should serve as giving notice that we’re aren’t quite yet to roll over and play dead.

    Yet.

  19. David Chang

    December 5, 2022 at 2:24 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Edward Luttwak don’t obey Ten Commandments, maybe trust Israel Communist Party, so he studied in the London School of Economics, the atheist college in U.K. and friends of Karl Marx.

    But Victor Francis Hess tell about our future:

    “All of us are horrified today — and justly so — by the mass destruction made possible by the discovery of the atomic bomb. Unlike the wartime uses, the peacetime uses of “uranium fission” are still far off. The horrors of mass murder seemed to be the direct result of scientific achievement. All that remains to be done for the utter destruction of civilization seems to be the invention of noiseless and practically invisible airplanes. Then we can destroy — or be destroyed — without the possibility of defense.”

    God bless America.

  20. dan mullock

    December 5, 2022 at 7:45 pm

    Strategic bombers don’t have a unique mission, and have a low cost competitor for every existing mission. Billion dollar bombers make no sense; far cheaper to launch a 10 million dollar hypersonic missile from 1,000 miles away or more from a used transport aircraft rather than penetrate defended airspace with humans on board. long range sensors combined with non-stealth large, long range carrier aircraft and drone counter air escorts are the answer. smart, relatively inexpensive, and large volumes are the answer. China and Russia don’t fear the B21. They fear us spending that money on precision guided long range hypersonic missiles that can be launched from a tanker or cargo aircraft.

  21. Valeriy

    December 5, 2022 at 10:50 pm

    Good enough, this is a dinosaur of bombers, a dead-end of evolution. Right now the Russian S-500 is easily taking down “invincible and invisible” US aircrafts and MLUs. They are invisible only to the outdated western PRO system.

  22. Jiri Novacek

    December 7, 2022 at 6:22 am

    Given how russian and iranian trolls are getting histerical in the comments section, seems that B21 is really a good system both militarily and politically. Lets build 500 of them and have a hundred plane fleet based in Germany.

  23. Buddy Princeton

    December 8, 2022 at 3:55 am

    Skunk works rockets always work and specs are unknown; hence the name skunk works. So many rocket scientists on this sight; what are the odds? No such thing as stealth, someone said, then why do you always hear about Israeli air strikes but never a downed fighter? Radar sees flying wings as equal to a small bird profile and enemies don’t track birds. IBM A.I. and ICBM’s Rathyon’s new Ground Radar, on this bomber, means every underground silo on earth can now have its warheads blown up before launch. Our Ultrasonic fighter does mock 10, there’s do about 6. Our’s are equipped with high voltage Lazer beams, at re-entry level they can target entire continents. U.S. Avionics & Missiles are superior, as are the F-35, F-22 delivering them are themselves. Son of Blackbird is real as the SR-71 Blackbird, still the fastest fighter. This bird flew before THEY KNEW, “they” are the enemies of the U.S.A. Better do some reading to catch up all you rocket scientist critics on this thread! Spies all know these are the new plums Our WHOLE NEW NUCLEAR weapon system that trump gloated about is real too! When China or Russia STOP talking about superior WMD’s; THEN they may have better weapons they’re about to use. UNTIL then it’s just a noise we call “saber rattling” but it been’s outdated by STEALTH, we’re QUIETLY threatening them with a picture. Check the stealth
    Attack and Boomer nuclear subs out, too, they’re coated to be quiet. They can use silent water jets to move in order to avoid detection! That’s why our weapons keep coming back; they’re invisible to our enemies, and specs are unknown. DAMN, those Skunk Works rooms have been in the dark a long time!

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