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Air Force Gaining Altitude in Development of B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber

Artist view of the U.S. Air Force B-21A Raider in flight by the late 2020's. (Northrop Grumman)

WASHINGTON — A next-generation long range strike bomber in development by the U.S. Air Force is gaining altitude in its development to eventually replace America’s aging bomber fleet.

The Air Force is working today with aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman to develop and build the B-21A Raider — a high tech aircraft capable of evading enemy positions with modern stealth capabilities.

The B-21 will carry the popular flying-wing design similar to the B-2.

“We’ve got to modernize,” stated General Robin Rand, Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale AFB, La. “The B-21 is going to be a big part of modernization for our Air Force so that we can continue to do the long-range strike mission.”

B-21A Development Off to a Fast Start

The B-21’s design was announced in February 2016, and immediately questions arose as to the future of the new program. How many of the new bomber will be built; will it be able to perform at super sonic speeds; and will it be crewed or not.

“We need to start with a minimum of a hundred B-21s and my premise for that is looking at combatant commander requirements we currently have,” General Rand added. “So, we start with one hundred, and as we manage the fleet and we manage retiring some aspects of the fleet and bringing the B-21 in, we need to really dig our heels in on what that ceiling should be.”

The bat-like wing design with its ability to carry large payloads over great distances will likely see the B-21A as a subsonic aircraft. Keeping costs down is also a factor in its design. According to the the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the cost of each B-21A was listed at just over $560 million based on a 100 aircraft number in 2016.

For FY2018, $2 billion was appropriated for funding of the B-21.
The U.S. Air Force official B-21 Raider logo.

Initially, Gen. Rand stated that the first aircraft will be on an air base by the mid-2020s, however in 2017, he commented that initial operating capability would be the late-2020s.

Northrop Grumman developed, built, and modernize the stealthy B-2 long-range strike aircraft for the past 25 years. The company continues to develop the stealth components for the F-35 Lightning II next-generation aircraft.

“Currently, only 10 percent of our nation’s bomber force is capable of penetrating advanced adversary air defenses,” Northrop Grumman said in a recent press release. “As our adversaries have continued investing heavily in sophisticated technologies and weapons platforms leaving them free to act maliciously or extend their reach, a new bomber is critical to deterring potential adversaries, reassuring allies, and keeping our nation safe.”

 Northrop Grumman’s historic Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, will construct a new area for construction of the B-21A in 2018. Plant 42 oversaw the constuction of several stealth aircraft including the B-2.
One question on the minds of its engineers and developers is to have the B-21 be crewed or not?“Right now, it’s manned with the option to do unmanned in the future,” said Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office leader Randall Walden.

New Armament for a New Aircraft

Although highly classified, the aircraft’s internal design has seen the need for advanced missiles for the next 50 years.

In August 2017, the Air Force announced a partnership with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to replace the older AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile with a newer standard for use on Air Force aircraft including the B-21.

“This weapon will modernize the air-based leg of the nuclear triad,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said. “Deterrence works if our adversaries know that we can hold at risk things they value. This weapon will enhance our ability to do so, and we must modernize it cost-effectively.”

Lockheed and Raytheon were given nearly five years and awarded a contract of about $900 million for development of the new Long Range Standoff weapon. The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center will choose one contractor for the program’s engineering and manufacturing development, and then its production and deployment.

Honoring the Doolittle Raiders

An official public relations contest in 2016 to name the B-21 had over 2,100 entries submitting the nickname “Raider”, in honor of the legendary Doolittle Raiders of 1942.

“What I like about it so much is the 21st century B-21 and the name Raider connects us back to our rich heritage,” Gen. Rand said. “There’s no richer heritage than what happened on April 18, 1942: 80 brave men in 16 B-25 Mitchells took off from the Hornet and showed the Japanese that we had will, we had fight, and changed, many would say, the course of that war.”

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)

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Charles Atkeison

Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.

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