The new B-21 Raider stealth bomber may be only five years away from serving in action. The B-21 is designed to deploy over enemy territory to scout targets and test advanced enemy air defenses. It can also use a new generation of stealth technology, computer processing, sensors and targeting to attack without an enemy even knowing it is there.
Already mostly built, well underway and preparing for its first flight sometime in the next year, the first B-21 bomber will be put through a wide scope of rigorous preparations for warfare through a series of inflight assessments to examining flight stability, airframe integrity, weapons and computing integration, sensing and other kinds of avionics.
What is interesting and quite significant about the program is, despite the wide scope of innovations and first-of-its-kind technologies, the B-21 development effort is, and has been, on schedule and performing very well. Many years ago, B-21 developers anticipated that the new bomber would be ready by the mid-2020s. Indeed, that appears to be the case.
Quoting Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins, Jr., deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, a report in Air Force Magazine says, “the B-21 will be available for service around 2026 or 2027.”
While schedule, construction or technical specifics have generally not been available regarding the bomber, for obvious security reasons, its developmental progress and performance has been cited by senior Air Force leaders for many years now.
This is crucial for the Air Force, which is not only seeking to massively upgrade its small fleet of B-2s, but also incrementally introduce new B-21s to the bomber force. The initial program objective called for roughly 100 new planes, however that number has in recent months been on the rise as senior Air Force leaders have expressed an interest in the possibility of building more.
The Air Force has not had a new bomber since the B-2 first emerged in the late 1980s, and upgraded, better armed, more capable B-2s are expected to fly alongside the arriving B-21s for at least another decade or two, depending upon the pace at which B-21s arrive to the force.
Having a sizable or robust fleet of stealth bombers, which does appear to be the objective for the Air Force, changes the tactical and strategic direction in interesting ways. A plane which reportedly introduces an unprecedented new generation of radar-evading stealth technology could not only secretly attack enemy targets in warfare should strikes be necessary, but it could also greatly expand the scope and reach of U.S. Air Force Bomber Task Force patrols. These are intended as deterrence mechanisms to, at least in part, prevent potential adversaries from thinking they can detect and destroy stealth bombers. That simply may not be true of the B-21.
Despite the fact that, for instance, Russian media often claims that its advanced S-400 air defenses can detect and destroy stealth bombers, it is not even clear that that would in fact be a reality related to the B-2, never mind the B-21. Should its advanced stealth technology and advanced sensing remain undetectable over enemy territory, the aircraft could use its networking “node” technology to merge certain kinds of surveillance missions with direct attack operations. Each of these could fortify and reinforce the other.
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.