Military Aviation

B-21 Raider, the World’s First Sixth-Generation Aircraft, makes public debut; will become backbone of USAF bomber fleet

The event did not provide much new information about the B-21 Raiders’s capabilities, though; no further programmatic details, such as the planned production rate, or even how many engines power the bomber, were disclosed.

In a tangible display of the nation’s resolve in meeting security threats, the US Air Force (USAF), on Dec. 2, 2022 publicly unveiled the B-21 Raider, the first new, long-range strike bomber in a generation and an aircraft specifically designed to be the multifunctional backbone of the modernized bomber fleet.

As reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, Aircraft 00001 was rolled forward, still covered with a tarpaulin, from a hangar at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant before dignitaries, the press, and some 2,000 workers. Applause erupted when the tarpaulin was removed, revealing an aircraft looking somewhat like the B-2 bomber but also like a flying saucer, with a deep keel and eccentric windows. A flyover of B-52, B-1B, and B-2 bombers in the darkening skies over the plant preceded the rollout.

While the B-21 isn’t expected to be operational and introduced into service for several more years, the formal unveiling ceremony hosted by Northrop Grumman Corporation at its production facilities in California is a significant milestone in the Air Force’s effort to modernize combat capabilities. The B-21 is designed to be a more capable and adaptable, state-of-the-art aircraft that will gradually replace aging B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers now in service.

According to design requirements, the B-21 is a long-range, highly survivable stealth bomber capable of delivering a mix of conventional and nuclear munitions. The aircraft will play a major role supporting national security objectives and assuring US allies and partners across the globe.

According to a USAF news release, senior defense officials note that the National Defense Strategy and other analyses make clear the need for the B-21 and its capabilities.

“The B-21 Raider is the first strategic bomber in more than three decades,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin said during the ceremony. “It is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation. And it’s proof of the Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future.”

The B-21, Austin said, “is deterrence the American way. … This isn’t just another airplane. It’s not just another acquisition. … It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love. It’s a testament to our strategy of deterrence—with the capabilities to back it up, every time and everywhere.”

The world and its threats have changed dramatically since the last new bomber was introduced in 1988, as has the way the Air Force, other US military services and allies work together as a joint, multi-domain force. Senior defense officials say that new thinking and innovation are needed to meet the new and emerging threats.

“That innovative spirit is sitting behind us right now,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., told reporters shortly before the plane was unveiled.

The B-21 Raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony Dec. 2, 2022, in Palmdale, Calif. Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.

“You think about what we’re able to do in the amount of time with the workforce here from Northrop Grumman, the collaboration with the United States Air Force to bring in a capability using a digital approach which is new and different from anything we’ve done any major program, that’s part of the Raider spirit,” he said.

The B-21 is the first new bomber to be introduced since the end of the Cold War. Air Force officials envision an ultimate fleet of at least 100 aircraft with an average procurement unit cost requirement of $692 million (base year 2022 dollars).

“When I think about accelerate change, this is exactly what it means to be able to bring this kind of capability very quickly and be able to adapt it vis-à-vis the threat,” Brown said in his meeting with reporters. “And so today, I’m really excited that we bring the B-21 Raider into the future. It’ll be the backbone of our bomber fleet.”

The aircraft is designed with updated stealth qualities and mission flexibility that senior leaders in the Air Force and across the Department of Defense say are necessary to achieve the US goal of achieving integrated deterrence, and if necessary, capabilities required to successfully respond to aggression anywhere in the world at any time.

The specific B-21 unveiled Dec. 2 is one of six under production. Each is considered a test aircraft, but each is being built on the same production line, using the same tools, processes, and technicians who will build production aircraft. This approach has enabled production engineers and technicians to capture lessons learned and apply them directly to follow-on aircraft, driving home a focus on repeatability, producibility and quality.

The timing for first flight will be data and event, not date driven.

As Air & Space Forces Magazine noted, “The event did not provide much new information about the B-21’s capabilities, though; no further programmatic details, such as the planned production rate, or even how many engines power the bomber, were disclosed.

“Though the B-21 is supposed to be smaller than the B-2, its wingspan seemed nearly as wide, though with a possibly different angle of sweep than that of the B-2. The “fuselage” seemed to have a deeper keel than that of the B-2. No dimensions of the aircraft were offered.

“A senior Northrop Grumman official said the B-21 will be “a lot stealthier” than the B-2 and feature such improved maintainability and reliability that it will be able to fly in full stealth mode “every day.” The B-2, by contrast, requires many hundreds of man-hours of maintenance just for its low-observable surfaces between missions. The B-21 improves on the B-2 by eliminating the “special tape” that covers its seams and panel lines, the official said. The new material—which may be back-fitted to the B-2—is far more “resilient,” he said.

“The key features revealed in the event were the slender air intakes, which scarcely rose above the blended-wing aircraft’s upper surface. The bomb bays were closed, and the tail section of the airplane was not visible from the viewing area. Clearly evident, though, was how much smoother the B-21 is than its elder stealth stablemate.

The B-21 Raider was unveiled to the public at a ceremony Dec. 2, 2022, in Palmdale, Calif. Designed to operate in tomorrow’s high-end threat environment, the B-21 will play a critical role in ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.

“The aircraft was bathed in blue light, and attendees faced spotlights—again, making viewing of the aircraft a challenge. Members of the press, on a center riser before the airplane, were limited to small lenses for photos, and only from directly in front of the aircraft.

“The B-21’s nose gear door bore the serial number 00001, and Air Force badges were stenciled behind the cockpit in low-visibility paint. The “tail code” of Edwards Air Force Base was painted on the B-21’s main landing gear doors.

“The prominent “beak” of the B-2 is also a feature on the B-21, but the B-21’s is longer and flatter.”

While the precise date when the B-21 will enter service is unknown, basing decisions have been made. Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota will become the first Main Operating Base and formal training unit for the B-21. Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas, are the preferred locations for the remaining home bases. Each will receive aircraft as they become available.

In addition to building a bomber with state-of-the-art technology and capabilities, Air Force officials emphasized the focus on containing costs while simultaneously allowing for maximum flexibility.

For example, the B-21 is designed with an open systems architecture that will enable rapid future capability integration to keep pace with the highly contested threat environment.

The B-21 design is based on firm requirements with existing and mature technology to control program costs. In fact, the plane’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, has been directed to use production processes, production tooling, and a production workforce that ensures sustained and seamless production while avoiding unnecessary costs.

“Leveraging innovative manufacturing techniques, open systems architectures and active management allows us to integrate new technology as it matures and ensures the B-21 can adapt to future threats and be successful when and where we need it,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Andrew P. Hunter, said.

“With the B-21, the U.S. Air Force will be able to deter or defeat threats anywhere in the world,” said Tom Jones, corporate vice president and president, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, in a company news release. “The B-21 exemplifies how Northrop Grumman is leading the industry in digital transformation and digital engineering, ultimately delivering more value to our customers.”

The B-21 Raider is named in honor of the Doolittle Raids of World War II when 80 men, led by Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, and 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers set off on a mission that changed the course of World War II. The designation B-21 recognizes the Raider as the first bomber of the 21st century.

Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force introduce the B-21 Raider, the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Northrop Grumman

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • From the limited information available, and overall personal guesses - anyone want to make book on whether this will be a manned or unmanned aircraft? If we can put a drone-delivered missile into the office window of an enemy, why bomb an entire city - stealthily or not?

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