The B-21 is a smaller and more advanced version of the famously capable and infamously expensive B-2. It is currently on schedule to start flying missions around the same time that U.S. officials say Beijing is planning to make its big move on Taiwan.
The U.S. Air Force says it is on course to reveal its brand new B-21 stealth bomber in just a few days, on December 2. The bomber is then expected to make its first test flight early next year. The new bomber’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, also built the B-2 bomber, and the B-21 borrows many of its design characteristics from the famous B-2.
However, the B-21 Raider is quite a bit smaller than the B-2 Spirit, which means it would be even harder to detect on radar, but also means it would be able to carry only around half the payload that the B-2 can carry. The B-2 Spirit’s stated payload capacity is 40,000 pounds, or just over 18 tons, but the B-21’s payload capacity is still top secret.
Whereas the B-2 measured a whopping 52.5 meters (172 feet) from wingtip to wingtip, the B-21 measures only 45.7 meters (150 feet). That does not seem like a big difference, but because the two airplanes have a very similar “faceted flying wing” layout, this means the overall surface area of the B-21 is almost 40% smaller than the B-2’s.
Most of the details of the B-21 Raider’s design have been kept very secret, so much so that analysts can only speculate whether the new plane will also feature four jet engines, like the B-2 Spirit, or only two. The Raider is touted as being far advanced in terms of low-observable technology, with Northrop Grumman claiming that it is at least two generations more advanced than the B-2.
The B-2 first flew in July 1989, which means that if the B-21 does fly next year, it would be the U.S.’s first new bomber in almost 34 years. The U.S. Air Force says it plans to buy more than 100 of the new planes, but that remains to be seen as Northrop was originally supposed to build 132 units of the B-2, but ended up building only 21. This meant that the massive cost of developing the B-2 Spirit had to be divided by many fewer planes, raising the cost per plane from an original quote of $440 million per plane to an eye-watering $2.1 billion per plane.
Currently the estimated cost of the new B-21 Raider is $553 million per plane, but that could skyrocket if its production process runs into the same headwinds that the B-2 ran into.
The reason why the B-21 looks so similar to its predecessor is because the Air Force wanted to use the experience and development breakthroughs that it paid for so dearly when it bought the B-2. In this way, it is hoped that the B-21 will build on the great leap forward that the B-2 still represents, while reducing the risks of massive cost overruns that caused Congress to cut the number of B-2 bombers to less than one sixth of the number that the Air Force said it needed.
Currently, the U.S.’ 21 B-2 Spirit bombers are to be used as penetration bombers in a theoretical conflict, while the remaining 76 versions of the U.S.’ ancient B-52 heavy bomber are tasked with picking up the slack, even though the B-52 has zero stealth and is only safe if it fires long-range precision missiles from far away.
If all goes to plan, the first mature version of the B-21 should be ready for war by around 2025. With many expecting China to spark a war over Taiwan in the next few years, the new and improved stealth bomber couldn’t come at a better time. As retired Air Force colonel Chris Brunner puts it: “Today, the U.S. long-range bomber fleet is the oldest, smallest, and most fragile it has ever been. Except for the B-2, U.S. bombers cannot survive in highly contested air space. Fielding a robust force of B-21s is the only way the United States can maintain the range and payload advantage it enjoyed in past conflicts.”
Image: Northrop Grumman
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