On 2 December 2022, the US Air Force publicly unveiled its new bomber, the B-21 Raider. The aircraft is the first new, long-range strike bomber in a generation; it is designed to be the multifunctional backbone of the modernized bomber fleet.

As a long-range, highly survivable stealth aircraft, the Raider will be a dual-capable bomber, delivering a mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions for conventional and nuclear attacks; the weapons will include cruise missiles and guided bombs, among them the heaviest weapon in US Air Force inventory, the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), which, until now, could be carried only by the B-2 Spirit and B-52H.

Once fielded, the B-21 will operate as part of a family of systems designed to support the Long-Range Strike with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Electronic Attack (EA), Communications, and other capabilities. The aircraft is designed with updated stealth qualities and mission flexibility to enable a credible ‘integrated deterrence,’ meaning that it can strike anywhere in the world at any time, including in denied and contested airspace.

Following the formal rollout, the first B-21 aircraft was towed for a short stroll outside the hangar for the first time. Photo: Northrop Grumman, US Air Force

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 (according to the base year 2022 dollars). The B-21 Raider will enter service by the middle of the decade and will gradually replace aging B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers now in service. The B-1B was fielded in 1986, and the B-2 became operational a decade later, in 1997.

A New Design for the Flying Wing

The new bomber is considered a ‘Sixth Generation’ aircraft, as it follows five earlier generations of jet bombers developed since the end of the Second World War. As a leader of the new generation, it is the first to implement the dramatic technological signature management, materials, and doctrinal changes, such as the multi-domain warfare, that evolved since the introduction of the first stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit.

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The lower side of the B-21 indicates the use of large, low-observable composite aerostructure and skin parts which requires less maintenance to sustain the low observable performance of the aircraft.
The teardrop-shaped elongated inlets also contribute to overall signature reduction.

[wlm_ismember]Although the new B-21 Raider looks like the B-2 Spirit, it is smaller than its predecessor but has more internal volume to carry excessive weapon loads. Overall, it is designed to hold about half the payload of the B-2.

A closer look at the B-21 reveals many differences. The new generation of stealth technologies derived from new materials and manufacturing techniques enabled developers to create a more flexible and optimal design that, from an external view, results in smoother skin. Unlike the B-2, painted dark grey to reflect its optimization for night missions, the first B-21 is painted in a light grey paint scheme, hinting about its capability to strike in daylight. Other distinct features are the teardrop-shaped elongated inlets, contributing to overall signature reduction. The main landing gear of the B-21 is different from that of the B-2, having only two wheels on each side rather than the four on the B-2. This difference indicates the lighter weight of the new bomber.

The cockpit area also reflects considerable changes between the two designs. The B-2 shows taped seams around the windshield and over most of the fuselage, but they are almost invisible on the B-21. Overall, the skin on the wings and fuselage seems smooth, without distinct apertures for sensors, antennae, or access panels. The B-21 features an advanced integration of data, sensors, and weapons. The low observable coating, and highly integrated structures, resulting in the absence of seams that must be repaired and measured frequently, help reduce the maintenance work often associated with stealth aircraft.[/wlm_ismember]

The B-21 cockpit shows minimal seams and taping, indicating the low observable characteristics of the outer skin are much more effective than that of previous low-observable aircraft.
The cockpit area of the B-2, shows a striking difference from that of the new B-21. Photo: US Air Force

Open Systems Architecture

When the B-21 becomes operational, the oldest bomber in service, the B-52 Stratofortress, will turn 80. But even in its old age, the B-52 will continue to serve alongside the new bomber, at least until the 2050s, after a thorough modernization process that will upgrade its radar, replace the engine, and introduce new communications systems. Despite its old age, the B-52 is much cheaper to operate compared to the B-1B and the B-2. Although the B-21 will be the most expensive aircraft in history, it is designed to be more affordable to operate over its service life.

One aspect of the B-21 is the design concept, using open systems architecture to reduce integration risk and enable competition for future modernization efforts to allow the aircraft to evolve as the threat environment changes. To promote efficient and collaborative development, the design of the new bomber was uploaded to a secure cloud, where all team members, including the Air Force, have access to a detailed virtual 3D model of the aircraft called ‘Digital Twin’ that allow designers to drive down risk in the engineering, manufacturing, and deployment (EMD). Northrop Grumman uses agile software development, advanced manufacturing techniques, and digital engineering tools to help mitigate production risk on the B-21 program and enable modern sustainment practices. The B-21 team includes more than 8,000 people from Northrop Grumman, industry partners, and the Air Force. The group consists of more than 400 suppliers across 40 states.

[wlm_ismember]To meet the evolving threat environment, the B-21 has been designed for rapid upgradeability. Unlike earlier generation aircraft, the B-21 will not undergo block upgrades but will receive new weapons and capabilities as they become available through agile software upgrades and built-in hardware flexibility.

Northrop Grumman and the Air Force successfully demonstrated the migration of B-21 ground systems data to a cloud environment. This demonstration included developing, deploying, and testing B-21 data, including the B-21 digital twin, to support B-21 operations and sustainment. The digital systems and advanced low-observable design are expected to reduce the ground systems footprint and the ground support at main operating bases and forward deployments.[/wlm_ismember]

The specific B-21 unveiled on Dec. 2 is one of six under production. Each is considered a test aircraft, but each is being built as production representative aircraft 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 aircraft will soon begin testing outside the hangar, including taxiing and powering on more systems ahead of the first flight in 2023.

The schedule of the first flight or initial operational capability has yet to be released, but the basing decisions for the new bomber have been made. The first three units of B-21 will be based in Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota, currently operating the B-1B, which will become the first Main Operating Base and formal training unit for the new bomber. Whiteman AFB, in Missouri, currently operating the B-2, and Dyess AFB, Texas, where B-1B is presently deployed, will also base the B-21.