- On December 2, the US Air Force unveiled the B-21 Raider, its first new bomber in over 30 years.
- Very little is known about the B-21’s capabilities and US officials plan to keep it a secret.
- But he’s perhaps most valuable not for what he can do now, but for his ability to stay relevant for decades to come.
What is the best feature of the B-21 Raider? It may not be the range of the new stealth bomber, or its payload, or even its distinctive tailless flying wing design.
Indeed, despite the media and aviation enthusiasts fretting and fretting over the unveiling of America’s first new bomber in 34 years – a plane that Northrop Grumman has described as “the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft” – there’s little we know at this point about the aircraft’s capabilities.
Yet perhaps the best feature of the B-21 is not its current capabilities, but its future capabilities.
“The Raider was built with an open system architecture, which makes it highly adaptable,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during the B-21’s presentation, which took place at the Northrop Grumman plant. in Palmdale, Calif., on December 2. As the United States continues to innovate, this bomber will be able to defend our country with new weapons that haven’t even been invented yet.”
“The B-21 advantage will last for decades,” Austin added.
An ability to upgrade the B-21 with technology that does not yet exist could allow the bomber to remain a viable weapon for decades, in the same way the legendary B-52 has been in service since the mid-1990s. 1950.
The B-21 isn’t expected to make its first flight until 2023, but Northrup already boasts that it was purpose-built to keep up with evolving technology.
“To respond to the changing threat environment, the B-21 was designed from day one for rapid scalability,” the company said. “Unlike previous-generation aircraft, the B-21 will not undergo block upgrades. New technologies, capabilities and weapons will be integrated seamlessly through nimble software upgrades and built-in hardware flexibility. “
In some cases, the vague promise of future military technology may be just rhetoric; in others, it might be an attempt to buy time for a failing program. The B-21 is still a long way from entering service and officials have completed the program, but those expecting it to be a breakthrough design may be disappointed.
Flying wings are a mature concept “that was unveiled in the 1940s,” aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia told Insider. Nazi scientists developed the Horten 229, while the United States also tinkered with the Northrop YB-49 flying wing bomber.
But the B-21 project suggests a conscious belief that an aircraft is only as good as its ability to accommodate future innovations.
Indeed, a common denominator of classic fighter jets – think of the B-52, which is currently being modernized, or the F-4 Phantom – is their ability to keep up. With a good adaptable base design, new weapons, sensors and avionics can be added later.
“If the open architecture concept works, we could envision an aircraft that flies for 60, 70 or 80 years like the B-52,” said Aboulafia, chief executive of AeroDynamic Advisory.
betting on the future
Ironically, all of this suggests that while the B-21’s current capabilities are crucial, they may not be the important ingredient to the aircraft’s long-term success.
For example, range is no longer the problem it once was. While the B-21’s range is classified – some estimates put its range at 6,000 miles – aerial refueling should allow the Raider to strike anywhere on the planet.
Advances in radar technology, such as anti-stealth radars, might negate some of the B-21’s stealth, but the Raider will also receive better jammers or improved radar-absorbing coatings.
The B-21 will also be armed with new weapons, in particular new generations of ranged weapons. The Air Force, for example, recently asked potential developers for information on building a new air-launched remote missile that will enter service by 2030.
The B-21 would also appear likely to carry hypersonic weapons in the future. However, Aboulafia was skeptical of its ability to handle current models: “Hypersonics would be a little too big for the B-21”, which is smaller than its older cousin, the B-2 Spirit, which debuted in November 1988.
On the other hand, hypersonic missiles will also evolve. The Pentagon has previously suggested the F-15EX fighter could be armed with hypersonic weapons, while Russia has armed MiG-31 fighters with the Kh-47M2 Khinzal, which Moscow calls a hypersonic missile, for use in Ukraine.
Current hypersonic missiles are too large to fit small stealth aircraft like the F-35 in the bomb bay, and carrying them outside reduces the stealth of the aircraft. But these weapons will become smaller and easier to mount on platforms such as missile-launching cargo planes.
Buying a plane that costs $700 million apiece and betting on future upgrades to keep it relevant is a hit and miss proposition. But while the B-21 is a solid yet equally adaptable design, it’s not impossible that the Raider could be seen flying into the 22nd century.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.