The Pentagon unveiled its first new strategic bomber in more than 30 years on Friday, a nuclear-capable bat-wing plane that will become a central component of the US effort to counter China's military build-up when it enters service around 2027.
The new strategic plane is briefly shown to the public in a tightly-controlled unveiling at the Air Force's Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, which is currently home to Lockheed-Martin's legendary Skunk Works.
The defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said that this isn't just another airplane. The aircraft has gone through fifty years of advances in low-observable technology. Even the most sophisticated air defense systems won't be able to detect a B-21 in the sky. The ceremony began with a flyover of the three bombers still in service: the 70-year-old B-52 Stratofortress, the 49-year-old B- 1 Lancer and the 33-year-old B- 2 Spirit, a strategic plane of which only 20 were built.
The B- 21, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, looks like B- 2, said Kathy Warden, the contractor's CEO. The way it operates internally is extremely advanced compared to the B- 2, because of the technology that has evolved so much in terms of computing capability that we can now embed in the software of the B- 21, Warden said.
The Pentagon allowed that it will be optionally crewed and it wants 100 of them, despite the fact that the plane's estimated cost of $700 m engine manufacturer Pratt Whitney and payload conventional and nuclear top speed, ceiling, range and ceiling were all included in the information offered to the public.
The B- 21 is the first part of the US nuclear deterrent's $1 tn overhaul of an upgrade that will include new nuclear submarines and land-based missiles and represents a shift from aircraft and cruise missiles needed for counterterrorism campaigns in Afghanistan and elsewhere to weapons that can meet China's military modernization.
The Pentagon said that China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by the year 2035, as per the annual China report published this week. The report said that China represents the most consequential and systemic challenge to the US national security and the free and open international system Six Raiders are in production, and it will soon start ground testing in open view. The first flight is planned for next year.
Estimates of cost depend on how many Pentagon purchases and if testing runs smoothly, according to some.
It is easy to say that the B- 21 is still on schedule before it actually flies, said Dan Grazier, senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. It is only when one of these programs goes into the actual testing phase when real problems are discovered. The B- 2, the larger predecessor of the Raider, was expected to have a fleet of 132 aircraft when it was unveiled in 1988. The Soviet Union collapsed, combined with cost over-runs, reduced the anticipated order five-fold. That left each plane costing $2.2 billion in 2022 dollars. The B- 2 was also limited because its windows didn't open and it had to be housed in large, air-conditioned hangers to stop its cockpit electrics from frying.
The Pentagon began allowing Northrop Grumman employees to acknowledge their families and friends that they worked on the B-21, according to the Wall Street Journal. Northrop Grumman said 400 suppliers are involved in the project and the plane has been designed with existing parts and technology.
Tom Jones, head of the company's aerospace unit, told the outlet that the B- 21 is designed to be a daily flier.