The U.S. Air Force has already begun phasing out its venerable supersonic, but conventionally armed, B-1B bombers to make room for the super stealthy B-21 Raiders, but the first B-21 test models are still at least a year from production. Still, the first B-21 bomber is starting to take shape and more details about it are beginning to emerge.
Illustrations shared of the bat-wing aircraft show the B-21 to be superficially similar to, though smaller than, the larger and older B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Critically though, the B-21 is expected to be far stealthier, employing low-observable technology at least two generations more advanced than the B-2.
In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Randall G. Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which manages the highly secretive program, said the first Raider bomber schedule to come off the assembly line in mid-2022 is “really starting to look like a bomber.”
Air Force Magazine notes:
The B-21 will come out in the open for engine runs, taxi tests, and other necessary ground checks at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant in early 2022. The first flight should follow several months later, Walden said. That first flight will be a short, 36-mile hop from Palmdale to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Once there, the 420th Flight Test Squadron will put the bomber to extensive aerial tests.
After that, the bomber should transition to production at scale “very quickly,” the former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said to Week and Space Technology last month. The first batches of planes should total 21 aircraft, but the Air Force will need many more.
As noted by Air Force Magazine, the B-21 will be able to carry both conventional and nuclear payloads. And Walden explains:
“We are building the airplane to have the access, range, and payload that is needed for the future high-end fight … as characterized by a highly contested environment,” he said. The goal is to “hold any target at risk,” no matter how well defended. The aircraft must be “effective for a very long time as the threat evolves,” he said, and its open architecture will allow frequent and seamless, “almost … plug-and-play” updates to the B-21’s capabilities.
The Air Force says it will need at least 220 bombers to support its global conventional and nuclear strike missions. The service plans to retire the B-1B and B-2 bombers, leaving only the new B-21s and the almost 60-year-old B-52s. There are only 76 operational B-52s. That means the Air Force would need to produce nearly 150 B-21s. Walden maintains that the goal is to produce “at least 100” bombers.
However, the future 220-bomber force could also include other aircraft, not yet produced. Gen. Timothy M. Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told Air Force Magazine last year that his command may buy some “attritable aircraft” for long-range strike. This may refer to using lower cost, and more expendable, unmanned drones such as the XQ-58A Valkerie.
This will likely impact the final number of B-21s the Air Force ultimately gets. But either way, the first Raiders will be coming in 2022.