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Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington, D.C.) The highly secretive and much anticipated new Air Force B-21 stealth bomber will blast onto the scene in a formal roll out in December of this year, marking a much anticipated milestone when it comes to the future of war.

As for what exactly can be said about the B-21 .. the answer is “nothing.” The program has been largely secret or completely “black” since its inception, for understandable reasons. Given the importance and sensitivity of the missions it will need to perform, certainly the Air Force does not want any adversary to learn specifics related to its design or technology. That being said, senior Air Force leaders do say there are ongoing deliberations with Congress regarding what, if anything, can be made unclassified to enable Congressional oversight and budgeting or production decisions. It may be possible to open up a little without compromising security in any way, as that is something now being analyzed.

Regardless, one thing is discussed in a general sense, and that is that the B-21 likely contains paradigm-changing or “breakthrough” levels of stealth technology and computing. As far back as several years ago, former Military Deputy for Air Force Acquisition, former Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, told Warrior that the B-21 will be able to hold “any target” at risk “anywhere” in the world. Since that time, senior Air Force leaders have echoed a similar level of confidence in the platform's technology and anticipated future performance. The service has also highly praised B-21 producer and designer Northrop Grumman for pioneering cutting edge technologies and ability to remain on cost and schedule with the new bomber.

Interestingly, Northrop Grumman did issue a general statement about ongoing work and procedural components related to preparing the stealth bomber for its roll out later this year and first flight in 2023.

“As the B-21 continues its ground test phase, the team will power up the aircraft, test its subsystems, and apply coatings and paint. The next steps will include carrying out engine runs as well as low-speed and high-speed taxi tests, and then on to first flight,” a Northrop Grumman statement said.

The Northrop Grumman statement also specifies that developers made an impactful shift to the cloud with the B-21s ground systems.

“This demonstration included the development, deployment and test of a suite of B-21 data, including the B-21 digital twin, that will support B-21 operations and sustainment. This successful test proved the ground systems footprint can be significantly reduced at main operating bases and in deployment packages, Northrop’s statement said.

The new stealth bomber has in recent years been going through design assessments, tests and a series of preparations at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as weapons developers have been working to ensure the aircrafts first flight is successful.

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The sleek-looking next-generation B-21 Raider stealth bomber will take to the sky next year after formally “rolling out” in December of 2022.

Northrop Grumman and the Air Force have now already built as many as six new B-21s as initial steps toward the new stealth bombers first flight planned for next year. The B-21 Raider will be unveiled in December of 2022 in Palmdale, California, in partnership with the Air Force.

“The focus is on a safe first flight of a production representative aircraft. With six aircraft in various stages of production and test, Northrop Grumman is progressing toward that objective as it continues to reduce risk, refine the building process, and mature the test fleet ahead of first flight,” a Northrop Grumman statement said.

For many years now, the B-21 program has been praised by Air Force leaders as an extremely productive program that has been both on time and on cost, while surging stealth technology into a new era of low observability. One key reason for this, both Air Force and Northrop Grumman weapons developers explain, is due to the successful use of “digital engineering” techniques. Through digital engineering, weapons developers are able to replicate key weapons performance parameters through computer simulation, making it possible to refine, assess and develop technologies without needing to actually “bend metal” and build platforms. This streamlines the developmental process, improves the supply chain and procurement process and reduces risk in the process of manufacturing the new aircraft.

The Air Force’s planned fleet size of B-21 has fluctuated, but largely in one direction, meaning the service has sought to expand the size and scope of the procurement effort. The service plans to acquire as many as 150 B-21s or more as it pivots toward a new generation of air dominance.

While most of the production and technological details regarding the B-21 are not available for obvious security reasons, there is widespread discussion among senior Air Force leaders about how the new platform incorporates breakthrough, paradigm-changing levels of stealth technology. This is of critical importance, given the rapid technological advances being made in the area of Russian and Chinese air defenses. Russian media claims its new S-400 and S-500 Surface-to-Air-Missiles are able to track and shoot down even “stealth” platforms, an ambitious claim which does not seem to have been verified or corroborated in any substantial way. What is known, however, is that new Russian-built air defenses are networked to one another with much faster computer processing, able to see or detect targets at much greater ranges and capable of operating on a wider range of frequencies. However, this does not mean that these systems can actually succeed in “hitting” or engaging a stealth bomber, especially an advanced one like the B-21 is reported to be. A given radar or air defense system may succeed in determining that something is “there” or in a general area of operations using low-frequency surveillance radar, however that does not mean the system can actually establish a target track on a moving stealth bomber and actually “destroy” a stealthy platform. This requires a much greater level of precision, track loop fire control and image fidelity to accomplish, and it appears there are likely many “undisclosed” stealth properties built into the B-21.

Certainly looking at its external configuration, the fuselage is a rounded, blended wing-body shape with no “visible” exhaust areas. Unlike a B-2 which as a few outlets in the, the B-21 does not appear to have any. This might suggest that innovators have discovered a new way to dissipate heat from the engine or simply regulate the thermal signature emitting from behind the aircraft. This is extremely significant, as a key aim of stealth technology is to ensure that the airplane itself and its surrounding airflow remain as close to the same temperature as the surrounding atmosphere as possible to reduce any heat differential which could be detected by an enemy’s thermal sensors.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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