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Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

As the Air Force prepares to launch its first flight of the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, service Secretary Frank Kendall said the new platform will incorporate cutting edge levels of manned-unmanned teaming.

B-21

Kendall’s plan for the B-21, as outlined in his discussion of seven key Air Force directives or imperatives, includes evolving the platform into a family of systems likely to include manned-crews along with drones and even unmanned flight of the bomber itself.

There are both substantial tactical, survivability and also cost reasons why integrating the B-21 with drones makes sense, Kendall explained.

Shown is a B-21 Raider artist rendering graphic. The rendering highlights the future stealth bomber with Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as the backdrop. Designed to perform long range conventional and nuclear missions and to operate in tomorrow’s high end threat environment, the B-21 will be a visible and flexible component of the nuclear triad. (U.S. Air Force graphic). This is the third USAF rendering of the B-21 Raider. Note changes in the windshield from previous official renderings.

Shown is a B-21 Raider artist rendering graphic. The rendering highlights the future stealth bomber with Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as the backdrop. Designed to perform long range conventional and nuclear missions and to operate in tomorrow’s high end threat environment, the B-21 will be a visible and flexible component of the nuclear triad. (U.S. Air Force graphic). This is the third USAF rendering of the B-21 Raider. Note changes in the windshield from previous official renderings.

“This initiative, similar to NGAD, identifies all of the components of the B-21 family of systems, including the potential use of more affordable un-crewed autonomous combat aircraft,” Kendall said according to an Air Force report.

While there is of course no substitute for the unique decision-making attributes of human cognition deemed critical to real-time dynamic adjustments amid a host of fast evolving air warfare variable, there are also unprecedented advantages to using drones in close coordination with the bomber.

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Often referred to as the “loyal wingman” phenomenon, the concept of networking manned and unmanned systems in combat brings targeting advantages such as an ability to send drones forward into enemy fire without placing humans at risk. For instance, while being directed from the cockpit of a manned B-21, forward operating, yet stealthy drones could test enemy air defenses. 

However, the B-21 itself, manned or potentially unmanned, might be the optimal platform to test and elude enemy air defenses because it incorporates a new generation of stealth technology. Should a small drone operating forward be shot down by an enemy, no humans would be lost but an adversary would know that attacking forces were in the air. 

B-21 U.S. Air Force Rendering

Artist rendering of a B-21 Raider concept

The entire concept of the B-21’s broadband stealth is aimed at operating with an ability to elude both lower-frequency “surveillance” radar able to discern if an aircraft is “there,” as well as high frequency “engagement” radar able to actually develop a target track and fire upon an aircraft. The B-21 is engineered to appear like a “bird” to enemy radar and prevent an adversary from knowing the aircraft is even there.

Armed drones could also be directed to fire upon and “jam” enemy air defenses with EW or even drop weapons when directed by a manned B-21 operating in the role of command and control.

Unmanned systems could, however, incorporate what he called “attributable,” lower cost mission systems.

“They (drones and unmanned systems) could deliver a range of sensors, other mission payloads, and weapons, or other mission equipment and they can also be attributable or even sacrificed if doing so conferred a major operational advantage – something we would never do with a crewed platform,” Kendall said. “The technologies are there now to introduce un-crewed platforms in this system-of-systems context, but the most cost effective approach and the operational concepts for this complement to crewed global strike capabilities have to be analyzed and defined.”

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization