In the earlier article, “Why The Air Force’s New Stealth Bomber Could Be Special.” One of the key quotes was culled from Kyle Mizokami in a Popular Mechanics piece. “The B-21, the Air Force’s first new heavy strategic bomber in more than three decades, was originally forecast to fly in late 2021, then the date slipped into 2022, and now 2023. Despite the delay, the aircraft is reasonably on track and has stayed within its budget—a modern miracle for expensive defense programs.”
Is that cause for optimism still merited 16 months later?
A Quick Review: The Why and the Wherefore of the B-21
The driving forces behind the existence and development of the B-21 Raider are twofold: (1) the aging of America’s current strategic bomber fleet and (2) a sense of urgency to keep up with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) ongoing development of the next-generation H-20 bomber.
Regarding the first item in particular, the U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress aka the “B.U.F.F,” the B-1B Lancer aka the “Bone,” and the B-2 Spirit are all superbly effective, combat-proven platforms. The problem is, they’re all getting long in the tooth. The B-2 is the “youngest” (so to speak) of the trio, at the age of 34, which isn’t that big of a deal until you factor in the extended wear and tear on the airframes due to the fact that only 20 Sprits exist, to begin with, which calls to mind the immortal words of Indiana Jones: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”
Meanwhile, the “Bone” is 49 years old, with only 45 airframes available as of August 2022, and the venerable “B.U.F.F.” is a septuagenarian; as truly impressive as the latter’s longevity and adaptability has been, nothing lasts forever. A sobering statistic provided by Northrup Grumman indicates that currently, only a mere 10 percent of America’s bomber fleet is capable of penetrating advanced adversary air defenses!
Ergo, as the Northrup Grumman official info page declares: “We are providing America’s warfighters with an advanced aircraft offering a combination of range, payload, and survivability. The B-21 Raider will be capable of penetrating the toughest defenses to deliver precision strikes anywhere in the world. The B-21 is the future of deterrence … That bold, innovative and courageous spirit of the Doolittle Raiders has been the inspiration behind the name of America’s next generation bomber, the B-21 Raider, in development now by the U.S. Air Force and Northrop Grumman.”
Fast-forward to December 2022, and the USAF officially unveiled the B-21 in a ceremony at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The ceremony was attended by SECDEF Lloyd Austin, Northrop Grumman chief executive Kathy Warden, and family members of some of the Doolittle Raiders. During the ceremony, Mr. Austin gave a speech in which he proudly proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is deterrence the American way.”
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Fast-forward again, this time to September 18, 2023 (fittingly enough, the USAF’s 76th anniversary), and we have an update courtesy of Stefano D’Urso of The Aviationist:
“We already saw from the photos that the bomber is now in a much more advanced state of completion, compared to the day of the official rollout. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, also provided an update on the tests, mentioning that engine runs are currently in progress at Northrop Grumman’s facilities at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, with the first flight expected by the end of calendar year 2023.”
Four days prior to the publication of D’Urso’s article, Stephen Losey of DefenseNews wrote a piece, which also corroborated the projection of the Raider making her maiden flight by December of this year. Losey reported that the Air Force is currently in the midst of conducting an extensive series of ground tests, which include engine runs; this intensive battery of tests is required before the B-21 can receive the official green light to make that long-awaited maiden flight. Losey added that “In an interview with Defense News on Wednesday, Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman’s aeronautics systems unit, declined to say when the engine runs began or what further tests must occur before the first flight can take place, citing security concerns.”
Right now, the USAF plans to purchase 100 of these warbirds, though some defense analysts assert that the Air Force should purchase at least twice that number. Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota; Dyess AFB, Texas; and Whiteman AFB, Missouri, have all been identified as potential hosts for the B-21 Raider; the first two bases are the current home of the B-1B, whilst the latter is the current host of the B-2.
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU).