The B-21 Raider is the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft. This long-range, stealth-heavy bomber built by Northrop Grumman is capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads. Northrop was awarded the contract in October 2015 by the United States Air Force (USAF) for engineering and manufacturing development.
Pratt & Whitney, Janicki Industries, Collins Aerospace, GKN Aerospace, BAE Systems, and Spirit AeroSystems are also contractors on the programme. The name ‘B-21’ refers to being the first bomber of the 21st century, and has been designated the name ‘Raider’ in honour of the Doolittle Raiders, renowned for their surprise attack against Japan in World War II.
The Raider was unveiled to the public in December last year and has its first flight scheduled to take place this year, following a successful ‘first power on’ in July. This first flight, which was originally planned for 2021 but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, will take the first test model from Plant 42, near Palmdale California, to Edwards Air Force Base.
The B-21’s first formal training base will be the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which will act as the primary base of operations, followed by Whiteman AFB in Missouri, and Dyess AFB in Texas. The USAF currently plans on acquiring at least 100 B-21s at a cost of $692m per aircraft, a much cheaper price tag than that of the B-2 Spirit bombers it is replacing, which cost more than $2bn per aircraft.
One of the main features of the B-21 is its stealth technology, though many critical specifications remain unknown or highly classified. Mimicking its predecessor, the B-2, the B-21 features a blended-wing design which can evade low-frequency surveillance radar more effectively at the cost of manoeuvrability due to the design, which minimises protruding edges and lacks definable contours.
The surface has been smoothed out to reduce drag, simultaneously reducing fuel consumption and allowing the entire airframe to generate lift, thus increasing its maximum range. Efforts were made to render engine intakes more compact and shallow in order to reduce the risk of radar sensors detecting large physical cavities within the airframe, an approach which helps hide the engine fan blades that are also highly reflective and thus detectable by radar.
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The B-21’s airframe features a light-grey livery colour designed to reduce its infrared signature, which is likely supplemented by a radar absorbent coating as features in many fifth-generation stealth aircraft. Produced using a classified mixture of conductive and non-conductive materials (carbon or iron-oxide), the coating absorbs the radar’s waves before transferring said energy into heat and dispersing it within the non-conductive materials to minimise the residual thermal signature.
The B-21 features several other improvements over its predecessor, including a deeper keel to house larger payloads or fuel and landing gear with two-wheeled bogies to provide more internal space than the B-2’s four-wheeled bogies.
However, arguably the biggest innovation provided by the B-21 is its enhanced modularity, having been designed with an open-systems architecture approach to facilitate the integration of new technologies and capabilities from third-party suppliers to maximise the platform’s versatility and life cycle.
This will provide the B-21 with operational longevity similar to legacy platforms like the B-52, which the USAF has been operating and maintaining since the 1950s while reducing maintenance, repair, and operation costs over the long term. This capacity is further supported by Northrop Grumman’s novel manufacturing and sustainment procedures, which features the use of virtual 3D modelling and ‘digital twins’ to reduce risk and enhance efficiency both during production and throughout the platform’s life cycle.
The digitisation of the aircraft extends beyond the platform itself to its avionics and subsystems, as much like the USAF’s F-35 Lighting II multirole fighter jets, the B-21 is expected to play a critical role in the US Department of Defense’s future Joint All-Domain Command and Control operations concept.
The B-21 will likely feature advanced and modular software capable of connecting input from disparate sensors, platforms, weapons, and C2 nodes to support highly networked operations or tasks such as manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T).
The capacity for MUM-T will be particularly beneficial, as B-21 crews could task their Collaborative Combat Aircraft UAV wingmen with riskier endeavours such as locating, tracking, and engaging targets, probing hostile air defences, or even acting as expendable decoys to increase the B-21’s survivability.
Beyond these planned capabilities, the growth of other emerging technology sectors and markets could further impact the effectiveness of the B-21 Raider, particularly in relation to hypersonic weapons technologies. Indeed, though current hypersonic missile designs remain too large to be stored within the B-21’s internal weapons bay, continued development and innovation in this field could see the development of compact hypersonic weapons suitable for the B-21.
This capability, combined with the B-21’s expansive operational range and stealth features, could enable a single platform to engage multiple targets vast distances apart during a single mission. Though the Raider’s true range remains classified, estimates place it at approximately 6,000 miles of range without refuelling, highlighting the platform’s extraordinary global potential.
While much of the design and technology of the B-21 is classified, it remains clear that this is a major step in the advancement of stealth and bomber technology. The B-21 will be capable of completing missions that would have previously been impossible to conduct with a single platform while also acting as an effective deterrent due to its long-range precision-strike abilities, global reach, and nuclear payload capacity. It remains to be seen how soon we will see these capabilities used in concert over the coming decades.