A Closer Look At Northrop Grumman's B-21
The Northrop Grumman B-21A Raider is a U.S. bomber under development that is projected to reach initial operational capability in the mid-2020s. It is now is the most advanced member of an evolving family of systems for long-range strike capabilities.
The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has confirmed a few details regarding the technical performance and characteristics. Inferences can be made from official Northrop Grumman and service supplied renderings as well as the aircraft’s program history.
Click on the blue boxes below to get some clues to the overall size and features of the bomber.
Few details are known about the technical requirements for the B-21. The program is needed, officials say, to prosecute the most highly defended targets around the globe, particularly highly mobile systems, such as air defenses, and hard and deeply buried targets, such as command and control and nuclear facilities. These targets require tracking through the moment of strike or precisely targeted penetrator weapons, thus making them unsuitable for standoff weapons such as cruise missiles.
Given the short development schedule, it is likely that B-21 will use existing hardware and technology, at least in its initial version, with multiple block increments in future plans. One requirement considered obvious is broadband stealth to enable the aircraft to evade detection even by search radars operating in the VHF band. The aircraft will likely incorporate a new generation of stealth technology beyond the F-35 in terms of capability, survivability, producibility and maintainability.
Renderings of the B-21 released last year depicts a novel, upward-sloping windscreen design. Building on more than three decades of B-2 operations, Northrop knew the similarly configured B-21 needed a new windscreen layout in the cockpit. Although the B-2’s four-pane layout offered excellent forward visibility, B-21 pilots need better lateral visibility, especially higher on the sides of the cockpit during refueling operations.
The renderings of the B-21 show other visual changes from a similar flying-wing layout of the B-2 that possibly reveal advances in stealth design (relocated engine inlets), a lighter aircraft (smaller landing gear) and a shift to high-altitude operations (a V-shaped trailing edge).
In May 2021, the USAF requested $108 million for advanced procurement funding of the first series-production B-21s in the fiscal 2022 budget. Aircraft deliveries typically follow three years after advanced procurement funding is awarded, suggesting a time frame between late 2024 and 2025. That timing generally tracks with construction plans at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, the planned first main operating base. A $1 billion construction program to support B-21 operations at Ellsworth is expected to be completed between 2026 and 2031, according to a Nov. 22 2021 report by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.
On March 3, 2022, the USAF announced that the first B-21 Raider test aircraft has started ground evaluations, and the sixth example of the next-generation bomber has started production.
Although the program of record calls for buying a “minimum of 100” B-21s to replace the B-2 and B-1B fleets, the USAF's preferred number may be 50% higher. A fleet of 149 B-21s and 76 reengined B-52s would fulfill the Air Force Global Strike Command’s “preferred” complement of 225 bombers.
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