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    The Untold Secret Of B-21 Raider Bomber

    B-21 Raider
    Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider / US Airforce
    The Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider is an American heavy bomber under development at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, Califonia. According to the public's disclosure of the monstrous aircraft, it says two are already under construction. 

    As part of the Long-Range Strike Bomber program (LRS-B), the strategic stealth bomber will able to deliver conventional and thermonuclear weapons to enemy targets anywhere and anytime in the world.

    The B-21 next-generation bomber expected to be rolled out in early 2022 and fly in the middle of that year, according to Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The Air Force predicted it could fly the secretive B-21 for the first time in December 2021. But Walden said the first Raider hasn’t yet reached final assembly, although it“really starting to look like a bomber.”

    b-2 vs b-21
    The bomber is expected to enter service by 2026–2027. It will complement existing Rockwell B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber fleets in U.S. service and eventually will replace these bombers.  Pentagon acquired a budget of over US$146 billion and is believed to increase to $217.3 billion for this secret project.

    Much is widely known. But there is much that is not known, such as precisely what the plane looks like, what it will cost, and how development is progressing. Although the B-21 successfully completed its critical design review late last year, it is largely shrouded in mystery—a necessary move so that potential enemies can’t get a head start in figuring out how they might defend against it when it begins joining the force in the 2020s. 

    Despite all the secrecy, though, tantalizing details about the B-21 Raider bomber can be learned if you listen to the scattered comments of senior Air Force officials in various venues. Here are some key features of the Raider that help explain why it is so important to future U.S. military operations:

    Unstoppable New technology

    As adversaries continue to invest in and develop advanced weapons, the B-21 Raider will provide the United States with a strategic asset capable of penetrating enemy air defenses and reaching targets anywhere in the world — something approximately 90 percent of the nation's current bomber fleet is incapable of doing. The B-21 Raider is a new high-tech stealth bomber designed to be long-range, highly survivable, and capable of carrying a mix of conventional and nuclear ordnance.

    Lower production costs

    The Air Force established cost as a “key performance parameter” at the outset, insisting that the price of each production bomber not exceed $550 million in 2010 dollars. The subsequent shootout between competing industry teams resulted in bids far below that number. The Northrop Grumman team won the contract in part because, according to the Government Accountability Office, it had a “substantial cost/price advantage” over the rival Boeing bid—even though the Boeing bid itself was quite aggressive. The average cost of a B-21 under the fixed-price production contract will likely be less than the price-tag for widebody commercial jetliners.

    It will be able to destroy any target, anywhere

    B-21 was conceived to overcome all the deficiencies of the current heavy bomber fleet, which consists of 157 aging Cold War aircraft. In particular, it will have the range, payload, strike features, and survivability to address every category of potential target—including deeply buried or time-sensitive mobile targets inside China. The basic logic of the design is that if the B-21 is to be an effective deterrent to all forms of aggression, then it must be able to hold at risk every asset valued by any adversary, no matter how well concealed or hardened such assets may be.

    It will carry a diverse array of munitions

    Raider will replace the B-2 bomber, which means it will be wired from day one to carry the B-61 variable-yield nuclear gravity bomb and the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile. However, it will debut as a conventional bomber capable of employing a diverse collection of smart weapons such as Boeing’s GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, which glides long distances to its targets. B-21 will likely replace the retiring B-1B bomber as a host for the Navy’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, a stealthy, conventional cruise missile built by Lockheed Martin.

    It is only one part of a family of strike systems

    The Air Force conceived Raider as one piece in an overarching architecture of systems designed to support long-range strike missions. That “family” of systems (as the Air Force calls it) includes airframes, munitions, reconnaissance systems, electronic warfare platforms, and resilient communications channels. Some features of this architecture, such as the role played by reconnaissance satellites, are not publicly discussed. B-21 will have the functionality to tap into any feature of this architecture that is useful in accomplishing its strike missions.

    It will be able to act autonomously

    Despite its links to various off-board systems, B-21 will have the ability to shut down all external communications and carry out strike missions autonomously. That requirement is dictated by the danger that communications in wartime might help reveal a bomber’s location or destination, and also by the need to operate in a nuclear environment where nearby detonations might degrade communications. So while Raider can leverage off-board capabilities, it has sufficient on-board reconnaissance, targeting and self-defense features to accomplish missions even in the most hostile environments.

    B-2 Spirit
    B-2 Spirit refueling / Northrop Grumman
    The B-21 will be integrated at a secure government-owned, contractor-operated facility known as Air Force Plant 42 near Palmdale, California. Plant 42 has over three million square feet of industrial space and is near Edwards Air Force Base where the bomber will undergo flight testing. The B-2 flying wing and the Space Shuttle were both assembled at the same site, which traces its origins back to the 1930s. Northrop Grumman has received funding for a coatings facility in Palmdale that will play a role in adding low-observable features to the bomber. Low observability, or stealth, will make B-21 nearly invisible to the radars of enemy defenders at relevant wavelengths.

    The key subcontractors. 

    The Air Force initially resisted revealing which subcontractors would support Northrop Grumman in building the B-21 for security reasons, but then identified seven of the most important players. Pratt & Whitney will build the engines, BAE Systems will supply electronic defenses, Collins Aerospace will provide flight controls, and Spirit AeroSystems will manufacture structural components. Most of the subcontracted work will be performed in secure facilities away from Palmdale, and then shipped to Air Force Plant 42 for integration on the bomber.

    It will be easier to maintain. 

    Low-observable technology revolutionized air warfare, but at its inception, the challenge of keeping aircraft stealthy during their service lives was a major problem. Aircraft often needed to be kept grounded for long stretches to assure that once they were airborne, items like seams between parts would not reflect radar energy. Northrop’s B-2 bomber has provided a testbed for developing methods of maintaining low observability more affordably. The Air Force made maintainability a requirement for the Raider program, saying that it wanted a plane as easy to sustain as Boeing’s F-15 fighter. Once the bomber becomes operational, its maintainability will translate into high rates of readiness.

    The increased emphasis on China and the Western Pacific theater of operations in U.S. military strategy has expanded demand for long-range strike aircraft at a time when the bomber fleet is at a low ebb. By the time the B-21 Raider debuts in the second half of the next decade, there will be no doubt about its centrality to national strategy. Some observers think the entire bomber force may eventually be replaced by B-21, with a total buy of up to 200 airframes. But first, the plane has to prove itself.

    History and its development

    During the early days of U.S. military involvement in World War 2, the country had been caught off guard, suffering a string of devastating defeats in the far east Asia-pacific seas, and left with a complete defeat on the horizon. Most far-flung U.S. military outposts in the Pacific had been lost in mere weeks by Japanese imperial might with American troops in the Philippines preparing to surrender in April 1942, just over five months after the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

    This string of events left much of Asia, and even Australia, open to possible invasion. With Germany virtually in control of entire Europe and much of North Africa, the Axis powers appeared to be holding every advantage. At the time, Americans longed for good news that would bring them hope. America’s enemies at that time viewed the United States as ill-prepared to defend itself. Americans were viewed as isolationists, too weak to stand up for themselves and their allies. That’s when an LRS-B plan was devised that seemed so bold and so crazy, that it might not even be possible.

    Raider bomber

    Brig. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, promoted two ranks following the successful raid, thanks B-25 aircraft plant workers in Inglewood, California, in June 1942 for their support. (U.S. Air Force photo) 

    U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 Mitchell bomber crew members, that led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, begun launching an extremely long-range attack off the deck of an aircraft carrier against military and industrial facilities in the Japanese capital of Tokyo. The mission was so far from any Allied airfields that the 16 B-25 would then have to fly directly to China to achieve any hope of finding a safe landing. The Doolittle Raiders knew they might not make it back.  If their mission were successful, however, it would have far-reaching effects on American morale and prove that mainland Japan was not impervious to attack.

    On April 1, 1942, the aircraft were loaded onto the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), and the ship set sail from San Francisco. There was a good chance that they would be spotted by Japanese patrol boats as the ship approached the heavily-guarded Japanese islands. The hope was that the vast Pacific Ocean would provide the cover needed to get the Hornet, escorted by the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and a small group of naval ships, close enough to the main island of Honshu to launch the attack without detection. 

    On April 18, roughly 200 miles out from the planned takeoff point for the B-25s, a small Japanese patrol boat found the task force but was destroyed by one of the escort ships. However, there were concerns that a radio message might have been sent to other ships and the decision was made to launch the B-25s early. Lt. Col. Doolittle’s plane was the first to take off from the Hornet, with others quickly trailing in single file from the deck. 

    B-25 Mitchell bombers
    Crews and their B-25 Mitchell bombers are lined up on the deck of the USS Hornet in preparation for their raid on Imperial Japanese military and industrial targets in April 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo)
    The aircrews joined in separate formations as they made their way to their designated targets. Everyone knew that taking off 200 miles short of their planned takeoff point reduced their chances of safely making it to airfields in China. The success of their mission, however, was now more important than their own lives.

    The raid was not meant to deal a devastating blow but it did provide a huge morale boost to the American public. The success of the mission helped pave the way for future victories. Throughout the years, the Doolittle Raiders have come to symbolize courage, and a “can-do” attitude when presented with a seemingly impossible task. 

    The people who helped prepare the B-25s, train the aircrews, and fly the mission, created a legacy of delivering success, even in the face of impossible odds. It’s only fitting that this legacy is imparted to the next generation of Airmen, and those who support them, as they fly the B-21 Raider to carry out future missions.

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