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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) As the world prepares to witness the dramatic and much anticipated unveiling of the new Air Force B-21 Raider Stealth bomber, there is indeed a widespread recognition that vast volumes of information and detail on the largely “black” program will remain an unknown mystery. While certainly much more is “unknown” when it comes to the new B-21, yet there are a few available details and many “observations” of relevance. Of course the Air Force and Pentagon says very little about the bomber for understandable and obvious security reasons. There are some general areas related to stealth technology which it would seem were a measure of focus for weapons developers. Again, no Air Force or Pentagon official is confirming anything specific about the B-21, it just relevant and significant to think in broad terms about what kinds of systems advanced stealth might incorporate.
Breakthrough new stealth technology such as carefully engineered coating and radar absorbent materials, acoustic and thermal signature management systems and cloud computing have all likely been areas of focus for Air Force innovators and weapons developers. The Air Force has of course not said this, as these are merely general ideas related to the topic of stealth and modernization. Other possible areas of focus inlcude new data processing and networking capabilities, AI-enabled digital flight controls, avionics and sensors and a “built-in” ability to accommodate new weapons and technologies as they emerge are all likely areas of technological emphasis on the bomber.
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Many years ago, senior Air Force weapons developers made powerful comments about the B-21, saying it will fly with an ability to hold “any target in the world at risk, anywhere at any time.” Developers have also for many years been saying the new B-21 will incorporate paradigm-changing new generations of stealth technology, perhaps sufficient to elude even the most advanced Russian-built S-400 and S-500 air defenses.
For many years now, the B-21 program has been praised by Air Force leaders as an extremely successful 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 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.
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 has a few outlets in the back of its fuselage, the B-21 does not appear to have any, at least in the initial renderings of the aircraft. However, when the B-21 was unveiled, the back of the aircraft was not visible in what may have been an effort to safeguard critical elements of its design from public view. If the actual aircraft is configured like the initial artistic renderings, it 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.
The new B-21 will also likely control drones and advance manned-unmanned teaming to a large extent, Senior Air Force leaders said.
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“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. 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 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,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in an Air Force report last year.
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. 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.
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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. 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 also incorporate what Kendall 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,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at an Air Force conference last year. “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.”
It is also a reasonable assumption that the B-21 will incorporate a new generation of data processing, sensing, weapons employment and AI-empowered computing. Several years ago, former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper published some significant comments about the B-21s progress regarding software and key elements of mission command, saying that developers completed an essential software-empowered process intended to bring greater levels of information processing, data management and computerized autonomy.
Through virtualization and software-hardware synergy, it seems conceivable that B-21 sensors, computers and electronics could better scale, deploy and streamline procedural functions such as checking avionics specifics, measuring altitude and speed and integrating otherwise disparate pools of sensor information. In effect, it means war-sensitive sensor, targeting and navigational data will be managed and organized through increased computer automation. This will allow pilots to make faster and more informed combat decisions.
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In previous statements, Roper has referred to the B-21’s inclusion of “Containerized Software,” something which refers to an ability to program computer operating systems to streamline and compartmentalize different functions simultaneously, yet without launching an entire machine for each app, according to “Kubernetes’” website. Roper cited Kubernetes, which is a computer system for “automating application deployment, scaling and management.” Much of this, as cited by Roper, is made possible through what’s called application containerization; it is defined as an operating system-level “virtualization method used to deploy and run distributed applications,” according to Techtarget.com. Containerization enables multiple “isolated applications or services to run on a single host and access the same operating system.”
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.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - 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.