Fresh images of the B-21 Raider circulated this week during Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s keynote address at AFA’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
The rare sighting of the aircraft reportedly occurred at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California facility in late July.
At the conference, the stealth bomber’s manufacturer said that it was undergoing a series of engine runs and is expected to take its first flight this year.
Before the Raider is able to take its maiden flight, it must undergo ground tests for several systems, according to the USAF. The Raider is designed to replace the service’s aging B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit airframes in deterring Beijing and to win a great-power war if one ever comes to fruition.
Strategic bombing has remained a powerful tool in total-war scenarios since the First World War. While much has changed in terms of payloads and technological improvements since this time, the USAF’s three strategic bombers fulfil this time-old need of being capable of bringing a war to the enemy’s house if necessary. The highly classified Long Range Strike Bomber program commenced more than one decade ago and was awarded to Northrop Grumman by 2015, which defines the Raider as the first sixth-generation aircraft across the planet.
What we know about the B-21 Raider
While little information surrounding the highly secretive airframe is available, senior officials have alluded to a few points of technological focus for the program. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin indicated that the platform will be able to fly unmanned and will likely control small fleets of mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) loyal wingman platforms. This concept is also being incorporated into the USAF’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which centers on a sixth-generation fighter surrounded by similar “loyal wingman” drones.
In terms of structure, the Raider appears to be very similar to its B-2 predecessor since both use a flying wing design. The B-21 resembles one large wing rather than a typical aircraft shape that features a fuselage with wings, stabilizers and a tail attached. This stealthy configuration is efficient since it requires less power to fly and increases the bomber’s range since this configuration boosts lift while reducing drag.
When will the B-21 take to the skies?
In addition to the engine tests recently carried out on the Raider, engineers also carried out troubleshooting reviews of the bomber’s fuel systems. According to Defense News, “The digital tools used to check the bomber’s fuel infrastructure allowed it to move to the engine run phase in less than five days,” which “on any new aircraft’s development, such checks are crucial to ensuring the fuel moves around to different places as intended.” However, these checks can also take a lot of time and contribute to delayed production.
The Raider was initially on track to take to the skies in 2021, but this timeline was pushed back in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the Raider’s engine tests are certainly a step in the right direction, potential setbacks could delay the bomber’s entry to service.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.