PALMDALE, Calif.—The Pentagon is poised to show off its first new bomber in more than 30 years, lifting the veil on the secret long-range jet intended as a central element in Washington’s effort to keep China in check.
Defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp. on Friday will provide a glimpse of one of the new B-21 Raider jets at a government facility north of Los Angeles, where its most sensitive military projects are developed and built, ahead of an expected first flight next year.
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At a cost of about $750 million, the B-21 boasts a futuristic flying-wing design and is intended to fly thousands of miles to strike targets deep behind enemy lines, evading detection by the most sophisticated air defenses. The plane is the first part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent’s $1 trillion overhaul, which will also include new nuclear submarines and land-based missiles, countering China’s own expanding nuclear forces. The B-21 will carry conventional and nuclear arms, and could eventually fly without a pilot, Northrop Grumman says.
A stealthy, long range aircraft, part of a family of systems that will include crewed and uncrewed versions able to serve as a bomber and other uses such as surveillance and communications.
Cost: Maximum of $756 million per plane in
First flight: Expected 2023
Service entry: Expected mid-2020s
Power plant: Pratt & Whitney
Top speed: Classified
Combat ceiling: Classified
Weapons: Conventional and nuclear payloads
Fleet: Air Force wants at least 100
Crew total: Classified, but will later be
Bases: Ellsworth AFB, S.D.; Whiteman AFB,
Mo.; Dyess AFB, Texas
A long-range bomber with stealth technology derived from a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures. These characteristics allow it to penetrate the most sophisticated air defenses in nuclear and conventional missions
Cost: $2.2 billion per aircraft in 2022 dollars
First flight: 1989
Service entry: 1993
Power plant: Four General Electric
Top speed: High subsonic
Combat ceiling: 50,000 ft.
Range: 10,000 nautical miles with one
Weapons: Conventional and nuclear
Base: Whiteman AFB, Mo.
Note: B-21 diagram based on a Northrop Grumman rendering. B-21 contractors: Northrop Grumman is lead, with 400 subcontractors including Raytheon Technologies, BAE Systems, Spirit AeroSystems, Honeywell International, GKN Aerospace, Janicki Industries Sources: Northrop Grumman; Air Force Jemal R. Brinson / THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“The B-21 provides utility to accomplish our nation’s security objective in every scenario imaginable,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula. “No other weapons system can do that.”
The Defense Department has said that strategic competition with China is the U.S.’s primary national-security imperative, including deterring conflicts in the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea and other areas of the Indo-Pacific region. That requires a bomber that can evade enemy radar through a stealth design, achieve a high top speed and carry a payload of advanced weaponry that it can drop it on many targets in a single run, defense analysts say.
“The B-21 is America’s China-deterrence bomber,” said Mark Gunzinger, a retired bomber pilot who flew the B-52, the Vietnam-era workhorse of the Air Force’s bomber fleet.
The Air Force hasn’t disclosed when it will deploy the B-21, though military analysts expect the first to enter operations in 2026 or 2027. It will join a bomber fleet that is the smallest—and oldest—in Air Force history.
In the years following World War II, the U.S. built a huge number of bombers designed to strike deep behind the lines in a conflict with the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Air Force began shrinking its bomber fleet, while expanding its fleet of surveillance and recon planes, helicopters and attack planes suited for the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The B-52 bombers are 60 years old on average, and the Air Force plans to fly them into the 2050s. The Air Force’s roughly 45 B-1 bombers are 34 years old on average, while its 20 B-2 stealth bombers are 26 years old.
“It’s later than it should be, given this decline in force capability and capacity,” Gen. Deptula said about the B-21. “But finally, it’s going to deliver capability that the nation desperately needs to execute its defense strategy.”
To limit adversaries’ ability to develop defenses against the B-21, the Pentagon has revealed few details about the classified program, keeping it under wraps in the heavily guarded Palmdale, Calif., facility for seven years. Three graphic renderings, a drip-feed of information from the Pentagon and an image of the plane shrouded beneath a sheet in a 2015 Super Bowl ad for Northrop Grumman gave the public a glimpse of its appearance.
The current bomber fleet is the smallest in Air Force history, and the oldest, including roughly 45 B-1 bombers that on average are 34 years old.
PHOTO: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES
Over this past summer, the Pentagon permitted Northrop Grumman and other companies involved in the project to let employees acknowledge for the first time they were working on the program. For the best part of a decade, workers weren’t even able to tell their families.
Northrop Grumman is ready to begin testing the plane—taxiing it on the ground around the facility and eventually flying it—so the time had come to reveal it to the public, Air Force officials said.
Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit bomber faced cost and development challenges.
PHOTO: UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES
“It’s a big airplane,” said Doug Young, Northrop Grumman’s B-21 program manager, who also worked on the B-2 program.
The Air Force hasn’t revealed how big, though analysts expect it to be smaller than its immediate predecessor the B-2 Spirit, introduced in the 1990s. Hit by cost and development challenges and skepticism in Congress about the plane’s role, Northrop Grumman built only 21 B-2s, rather than the 132 originally planned. That left each plane costing $2.2 billion in 2022 dollars.
The Air Force has said it would like at least 100 B-21s, and some leaders have called for more. So far, officials have said the plane is on or under budget. The Pentagon hasn’t made the cost and sustainment details public, but independent analysts expect the program to cost more than $100 billion in all if 100 planes are delivered.
Northrop Grumman said it leads 400 suppliers on the program, though the Pentagon has identified only six, including engine maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corp.
The average age of a B-52 bomber, a Vietnam-era workhorse, is 60, and the Air Force plans to keep flying them into the 2050s.
PHOTO: US AIR FORCE/GETTY IMAGES
Stealthy, radar-evading jets have proved difficult and expensive to maintain. Northrop executives said the B-21 has been designed with existing parts and technology to lower costs and improve reliability.
“The B-21 is designed to be a daily flier,” said Tom Jones, head of the company’s aerospace unit.