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(Washington, D.C) As the Air Force gets closer to sending its first few B-21 stealth bombers up into the air for testing, early evaluation and initial war preparation, many are likely to wonder whether the new ultra-stealth, secret platform just might succeed in an attempt to evade the most advanced air defenses in the world. Could it be true?
The details of its stealth properties may never fully be known, something which is quite likely for the best, yet a senior Air Force official told me years ago that the will be able to hold any target at risk, anywhere in the world...at any time.
What would it take for this to actually be the case? A lot, it would seem...but it may not be impossible.
B-21 War Gaming: Russian Air Defenses
Perhaps only a test in actual war would answer the question, but it would not be surprising if the Air Force began testing the B-21 against representative models or close approximations of Russian and Chinese air defenses.
While Russian newspapers can at times be given to some hyperbole regarding their weapons systems, state-run publications have for several years now claimed that advanced S-400 and S-500 Russian air defenses “can” detect and destroy stealth aircraft.
They are increasingly meshed or networked to one another such that they can transmit tracking data from one digital node to another, they operate with much faster computer processing speed and more sensitive, longer-range radar systems. They also operate on a broader range of frequencies and can likely share track-loop data between fire-control systems more quickly and efficiently. They may even operate with AI-enabled information targeting systems which use advanced algorithms to bounce incoming images off of known, previously compiled data to make rapid identifications.
However, despite the widely discussed growing sophistication of Russian-built air defenses, the task of actually “hitting” an advanced stealth aircraft is extremely difficult. A much narrower, high-frequency radar system is needed to establish a precise track on an stealth plane as it moves. A greater degree of image fidelity, sensitivity and precision is needed to maintain a target lock on an aircraft as it transits from one radar aperture or field of view to another. In essence, it may be quite difficult to establish a continuous track, the kind of targeting needed to actually hit and shoot down a stealth aircraft.
Hitting and aircraft is quite different than simply being able to make a determination that an aircraft is, or might be .. there. What this means is that, despite the hype about air defenses, advanced stealth is quite likely here to stay, particularly in the case of the B-21 raider as it reportedly incorporates an entirely new generation of stealth technologies.
Stealth configuration such as blended wing-body aircraft, heat signature management and internally buried engines are all trademark elements of stealth bomber technology, yet alongside these well-known stealth properties, advanced sensing, computing and AI-enabled data organization are all fast-growing technologies able to greatly improve stealth performance for an aircraft.
B-2 Bomber Modernization
The rapid technological maturation of Russian and Chinese air defenses, and their growing proliferation around the world, is likely one reason the Air Force is making ambitious and technologically sophisticated upgrades to the B-2 bomber. B-2 bombers are now being engineered with a special new technology called the Defensive Management System, an advanced sensor designed to find the locations of enemy air defenses, inform bomber crews and therefore enable B-2 pilots to navigate away from or “around” these air defense systems.
B-21 & B-2 Comparisons
The B-21 does look like a B-2 in a more general way, yet potentially much stealthier. The engine inlets, for instance, appear much more conformal and blended into the body of the aircraft, unlike a B-2 where they protrude slightly above the wing. The exhaust on the B-21 looks different than the B-2 too, as the available renderings of the B-21 show virtually no exhaust release. Are there new thermal management techniques enabling different, much stealthier heat dissipation? The more closely an aircraft and its exhaust mirror the surrounding temperature, the stealthier it is as thermal sensors are less likely to detect changes or differences in temperature.
A horizontal blended wing-body structure, with no protruding wings, fins or vertical structures designed for vectoring is, by design, intended to optimize stealth performance as electromagnetic radar “pings” have fewer shapes, contours and edges to bounce off of an generate a return signal or rendering of an object. This is the intent for a bomber like the B-21, which is engineered to both elude lower-frequency surveillance radar as well as high-frequency “engagement” radar.
The point here being, that even if wider spanning surveillance radar were able to detect that “something” was in its airspace, it might lack the radar precision, speed and tracking ability to “engage,” strike or destroy a moving target. Most of all, there may not be a clear picture of what an aircraft is, as a stealth bomber like the B-21 is engineered to appear like a bird or even an insect to enemy radar, given its low signature.
Perhaps the B-21 does incorporate a new generation of stealth technology, yet its lack of detectability may also be made possible or improved by a new generation of computing and long range sensing. Should the B-21 operate something similar to the B-2s Defensive Management System, or perhaps even something superior to that, it might be able to operate with an ability to find, track and therefore elude enemy radar systems.
Former Air Force Acquisition Executive Dr. William Roper once published comments on the B-21 computer sensing. Without citing specifics, he voiced enthusiasm that the B-21 was being built with a new generation of sensing and high-speed computer processing such that it can complete the decision cycle or OODA-loop, much faster than potential adversaries.
Perhaps there is a bomber equivalent to an F-35-like sensor fusion wherein advanced, high-resolution long-range sensors are able to detect enemy targets such as air defenses before it could possibly be detected.
This ability, to enter enemy airspace, attack and leave undetected against advanced Russian and Chinese air defenses, just might be possible for the B-21.
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.