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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The new Air Force B-21 stealth bomber will soon take to the skies for its first official test flight in coming months, yet the now fully-built next-generation platform is still poised to benefit from continued innovations and yet-to-exist technologies.

Its missions will need operational command and control, its weapons systems and computing will need new technologies and enhancements and its stealth coating and configuration will need to be preserved and upgraded over time. 

Not only will the B-21 itself need new software upgrades, weapons integration, AI-enabled computing and a new generation of targeting sensors, but the stealth bomber will also need various support systems and structures to be built as well, such as a “low observable restoration facility, general maintenance hangar and mission operations planning facility,” an Air Force report says.

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Speaking at a special B-21 industry day, Asst. Sec. of the Air Force for Installation, Environment and Energy John Henderson cited a number of upcoming construction opportunities of significance to the bomber program. 

A so-described “low observable restoration facility” would be fundamental to sustaining and upgrading the B-21s stealth properties such as its coating, radar absorbent composite materials and rounded exterior skin or fuselage. The bomber’s surface will need to be preserved as smooth, devoid of scrapes, indents, cuts or sharp edges of any kind. The hangar will likely be climate controlled to ensure the proper atmospheric conditions for the bomber as well. 

Given the changing technological landscape, it is interesting to envision what the Air Force might have in mind when it comes to a mission operations planning center for bomber intelligence preparations and some measure of command and control. Mission software is often pre-loaded onto aircraft prior to deployment to load pilots up with combat-critical data, target coordinates or other operational plans. Now, faster computer processing, AI-enabled mission planning and threat recognition software and an ability to perform near real-time analytics upon newly arriving information is improving data sharing and operational planning. 

Target details and changing intelligence information such as new drone sensor data or arriving information from a command center can not only arrive faster but be analyzed, organized and properly presented to synergize a group of otherwise disparate variables into a single integrated picture. Not only that, but operational mission data can now much more freely network from one combat platform to another, essentially combining input from a range of separated entities such as drones, fighter jets or even armored ground combat vehicles. 

All of these nuances perhaps further underscore why a new B-21 mission operations planning center might likely be equipped with AI-enabled computer processing and a range of high-frequency, high-bandwidth radio networks. Targeting coordinates, moving digital maps and details on the full force of air and ground assets operating in tandem would all need to be fed into a common picture to enable mission planners to organize planning information for pilots. Real-time connectivity, relying upon many transport layer communications systems and networks, can reduce latency and be engineered to respond or adjust quickly as new intelligence arrives. 

Once operational, the B-21 will at first be housed at Ellsworth Air Force Base or Dyess AFB, Texas, as an alternative, the Air Force report said.

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.