The Air Force’s new stealth B-21 Raider bomber may be as impactful as it is secretive given that the largely “black” program is soon to explode onto the scene with its first flight this year.
B-21: What We Know
Certainly, very little is known about the aircraft for understandable security reasons, yet senior Air Force weapons developers have for many years been clear that the new platform will operate with the ability to hold any target at risk, anywhere in the world at any time.
This is quite significant, as the B-21 may be engineered with new, paradigm-changing levels of stealth technology enabling it to operate against some of the most cutting-edge air defenses in existence.
The details as to how this might be accomplished are naturally not likely to be available for security reasons, yet the breakthrough elements of the B-21’s technology likely reside in its stealth properties, sensing and computing.
Perhaps the B-21 incorporates new radar absorbent materials making the aircraft even less “findable” by enemy radar systems than may have been the case with previous platforms, and there certainly may be new methods of thermal management able to lower the aircraft’s heat signature as well. Internally buried engines and specific technologies managing exhaust or heat emissions can further reduce the aircraft’s detectability to enemy sensors.
The world got its first official public glimpse of the B-21 in December of last year, when the aircraft was partially revealed to the public in a special ceremony in California. During the unveiling, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the aircraft “imposing” and further suggested that its most impressive technologies may lie beneath its stealthy exterior.
“The B-21 looks imposing,” Austin said in a December, 2022 Pentagon report. “But what’s under the frame and the space-age coatings is even more impressive.”
There are several key areas in which the B-21 may break new technological and tactical ground, such as in the realm of computing, autonomy, range and manned-unmanned teaming. Without offering specifics, Austin was clear that the B-21 will operate with unprecedented ranges, meaning it will be able to hold targets at risk anywhere in the world without needing to be fully “forward positioned.”
This is quite significant, as the B-2 became known for its ability to conduct 44-hour global missions flying from Whiteman Air Base in Missouri to the island of Diego Garcia off the coast of India years ago in support of bombing missions over Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The B-21 may indeed operate with an ability to reach even longer distances, as indicated by Austin’s comment. This reduces risks associated with forward deployment and of course holds potential adversaries at risk from anywhere in the world.
Another breakthrough element of the B-21 likely exists in the realm of autonomy, given that senior leaders and weapons developers have said the B-21 will likely conduct both manned and unmanned missions and even operate as a “family of systems.” This suggests concepts of operations of great importance to the Air Force, given recent technological breakthroughs with manned-unmanned teaming networking.
A manned host platform could, for example, operate a small group of forward unmanned drones able to surveil enemy territory, test enemy air defenses or even deliver weapons with humans operating in a command and control capacity at higher altitudes or safer stand-off distances.
“The B-21 Raider is expected to serve within a larger family of systems for conventional long-range strike, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; electronic attack; communication; and other capabilities. It is nuclear capable and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations,” a December 2022 Pentagon report on the B-21 states.
The AI Stealth Bomber?
Finally, some of the most impactful areas of technological innovation woven into the B-21 may reside in its sensing and computing, as it may operate with AI-enabled data processing and transmission technologies. AI-enabled on-board computing could, for example, gather, organize and analyze vast amounts of otherwise disparate streams of sensor data, process time sensitive threat information and operate as a critical aerial combat “node” within a larger, joint, multi-domain warfare environment.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.