US confirms five B-21 Raider nuclear bombers are under construction
The Secretary of the US Air Force, Frank Kendall, has officially confirmed that five prototype B-21 Raider strategic heavy bombers are under construction by Northrop Grumman at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The statement was made when Kendall presented his State of the Forces address at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland on September 21.
One thing that has marked the B-21 program is the shroud of secrecy surrounding it. Beyond acknowledging its existence and matters of public record like the bomber's costs, the details of the aircraft and its development timeline have been sketchy ever since the program began in 2014.
This is understandable given the importance of the B-21, which will one day constitute one third of the US nuclear deterrent triad, the other two being land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles. Because of the growing sophistication of modern air defenses, a nuclear-capable bomber designed to not only approach, but penetrate enemy territory, must include some extremely sophisticated technology.
As a result, the public has learned little about the B-21 Raider, named in honor of the WWII Doolittle Raiders, except for generalities and the odd artist's concept. In January, Randall Walden, director of the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and Program Executive Officer of the B-21 Raider Program, said in an interview with Air Force Magazine that two of the bombers were under construction and now Secretary Kendall has confirmed that five prototypes of a fleet that will one day number between 100 and 200 US$550-million planes are being assembled, indicating that the program is much further along than previously thought.
Slated to enter service in 2027, the B-21 will join the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer, and the B-2 Spirit bombers, and eventually replace them as they are withdrawn from duty. Not only will the B-21 deploy conventional and nuclear weapons in stand-off and direct attack versions, but its advanced design will allow it to handle intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack, command center, and other missions.
In terms of performance, the B-21 Raider is still under wraps. What is known is that it will have improved performance over the B-2, fly at subsonic speeds, and will likely use a variant of a current military-grade jet engine. Since Pratt & Whitney is one of the subcontractors, one of its engines is a likely candidate
However, the B-21's major advance is in terms of its stealth capability. Unlike the F-35, which can operate in areas where hostile forces are aware of its presence, the B-21 is designed to remain undetected for as long as possible.
The B-2 bomber switched the large bomber from obsolete to cutting-edge with its flying wing design and radar-absorbing coating, but it also proved to be very difficult and expensive to maintain. The B-21 improves on this stealth capability by countering low-frequency radar systems that were developed to detect stealth aircraft that can counter conventional microwave frequency radars.
Its signature is so small that it can lose itself in the low-frequency background scatter, but it's also much cheaper and easier to maintain than the B-2 because its stealth coating is more resilient, and does not require constant maintenance. This means that the bomber is not only cheaper to operate, but does not need the costly, environmentally-controlled hangars that can keep temperatures to within a couple of degrees.
"We have a nationwide industry team who has shown tremendous dedication and grit over the past 18 months,” says Doug Young, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Strike Division. "Combined with our extensive collaboration and transparency with our Air Force customer, and the success we’ve had in bringing digital tools into our design and production processes, the B-21 program is leading the way in many respects.
"With the capability to hold targets at risk anywhere in the world, this weapon system is critical to our national security. Northrop Grumman is committed to delivering the B-21 Raider to the war fighter on time to ensure America can project its power globally for decades to come."
Source: Northrop Grumman