The U.S. Air Force (USAF) is moving rapidly along with the construction of its first two B-21 Raiders, as the next-generation stealth bomber inches ever closer to full-scale serial production.
According to senior Air Force officials, the first B-21 Raider will be completed in early 2022 and undertake its maiden flight later that year. The USAF initially stated that the maiden flight would occur by December 2021, but Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, says that this earlier estimate was always a best-case scenario. Meanwhile, the second B-21 is taking shape: it’s “really starting to look like a bomber,” said Walden in an interview with Air Force Magazine. “The second one is really more about structures, and the overall structural capability,” he added. “We’ll go in and bend it, we’ll test it to its limits, make sure that the design and the manufacturing and the production line make sense.”
The B-21 is a heavy stealth strategic bomber with its roots in the Long Range Strike Bomber program (LRS-B), an early to mid-2010s procurement program for a long-range, nuclear-capable strike bomber. As with its Russian PAK DA and Chinese H-20 counterparts, the B-21 is a flying wing subsonic bomber that prioritizes stealth, penetration capabilities, and prodigious payload capacity over raw speed and supermaneuverability. Among the Raider’s currently confirmed weapons is the JASSM-ER stealthy cruise missile, the 30,000 pound GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator “bunker buster” bomb, and GBU-31 Joint Directed Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bomb. The B-21’s armaments suite is being designed with a focus on payload and configuration flexibility to accommodate a wide range of roles and mission requirements, though the full extent of its battlefield capabilities has yet to be revealed.
The B-21 will be phasing out the Air Force’s fleet of B-52, upgraded B-1, and B-2 bombers. Despite a steady stream of revisions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep these aging aircraft viable through iterative updates. USAF has concluded, and not without reason, that a fresh platform is needed to sustain their bomber capabilities into the coming decade. At least 100 B-21 bombers will be built, although some prominent voices in the defense community are calling for much more than that. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Commander of Air Force Material Command, previously suggested in an interview with Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, that a target of 180 B-21’s is not only feasible, but makes logistical sense. “As I look at how we set up the mission system and the open systems architecture for the B-21, we are going to retain those aircraft for a long period of time because I am going to bring new technologies in. For small fleets it is hard to get a vendor base,” said Bunch.
Despite the first B-21’s delayed maiden flight, Air Force officials say that the bomber program remains on schedule. Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins, Jr., deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, clarified earlier this month that the Raider will be ready for service in 2026 or 2027.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.