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A new generation of stealth technology, paradigm-changing computing, AI-enabled data processing, weapons, targeting and fire control are all fundamental elements of the Air Force’s emerging B-21 Raider stealth bomber, a breakthrough platform expected to reshape stealth bombing attacks for decades into the future.
Alongside performing this wide range of missions and operating unprecedented levels of advanced technology, the B-21 Raider will also operate drones.
B-21 Raider to Operate Drones
“We are assessing the potential to introduce a lower cost, complementary, uncrewed aircraft into the B-21 to provide an enhanced level of capability,” Undersecretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz told reporters at the announcement of the service’s 2023 budget request.
Often referring to the B-21 in the context of a “family of systems,” senior Air Force leaders have for quite some time discussed the new aircraft as expected to be capable of unmanned missions.
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This concept of operations could evolve in several ways, as it could involve preparations for having the B-21 fly unmanned missions itself, or operate groups of networked drones from the cockpit of the aircraft. This kind of “loyal wingman” capability, now progressing quickly through Air Force testing and development, enables a manned crew to control the flight path and sensor payload from the cockpit of the aircraft.
This not only allows manned crews to operate at a safer stand-off range but also enables operation of a forward “node” or sensor platform from which to conduct surveillance, test enemy air defenses or even drop weapons when directed by a human.
Through programs such as the Air Force’s Valkyrie drone, the service has already demonstrated the ability of an F-35 or F-22 to fly alongside of and operate drones such as the Valkyrie. This greatly reduces latency by avoiding a need to route time-sensitive surveillance and targeting data through a ground station. B-21 manned-unmanned teaming also introduces a wide range of new tactical possibilities, to include an ability to deliver a much larger weapons payload, increase dwell time over target areas and conduct attacks over a wider envelope or engagement area.
2023 is the year when the new bomber is slated to enter low-rate initial production, and final testing and preparation has been underway for months at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The Air Force is requesting $1.7 billion to begin producing the aircraft, which will begin its first flights this year in 2022.
“The operational imperative focused on the B-21 long-range strike family of systems, represents our preliminary efforts to modernize the strategic aircraft leg of our nation's nuclear triad,” Ortiz said.
Very little information is available about the B-21 for understandable security reasons, as most of the program is “black” or considered highly secret. However, senior Air Force leaders have been clear that they expect the B-21 to be able to hold any target at risk, anywhere in the world, at any time.
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.