The new American B-21 Raider bomber has been unveiled in Palmdale, California. Growing concern about conflict with China is the background to the top-secret project.
On Friday evening, specially invited guests got to see the plane for the first time in a strictly controlled event. It all started with a flyover with three existing bombers – B-52, B-1 and B-2. The hangar doors then slowly opened and the new B-21 was partially pulled out of the building.
– This isn’t just a plane. “This is about embodying America’s resolve to defend the country we all love,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The plane is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2023.
Almost every part of the B-21 project is covered in varying degrees of secrecy – including the price. Prior to the unveiling, a number of illustrations of the aircraft were announced. They showed a blackened stealth aircraft that closely resembled the current B-2 Spirit.
However, there is a lot of difference. The aircraft must be able to operate with and without crew on board. The US Air Force and manufacturer Northrop Grumman also point to the relatively short time it took to develop. After several examples of such decades-long programs, it had only been seven years since the contract was signed.
China is preparing
The US authorities are working to reorganize US forces after decades of the “war on terror”. Now the main focus is to meet China’s rapid modernization of the country’s armed forces.
The bomber project is part of the US effort to modernize all three components of its nuclear fist – the so-called triad. In addition to bombers, they include long-range nuclear missiles launched from submarines and from silos on land.
Throughout the postwar period, China had fewer nuclear weapons in its arsenal than the United States and Russia/Soviet Union, both of which had thousands of warheads at their disposal. Today China is believed to have about 400.
However, China is preparing. In its annual report on China’s military forces, the Pentagon claimed in November that the country will have an arsenal of 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.
The country is also making significant progress in areas such as hypersonic weapons, electronic warfare and capabilities in space, US authorities believe.
– This is the most important and systemic challenge to both US national security and the free and open international order, as stated in the Pentagon report.
– We needed a new bomber for the 21st century, which would enable us to deal with much more sophisticated threats. Like the threats we fear we will one day face from China and Russia, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said when the contract was announced in 2015.
– She said that the B-21 has a higher survivability and can meet these more demanding threats.
Differences from today’s B-2 also emphasizes Cathy Warden, president of Northrop Grumman.
– The internal functions are very advanced compared to the B-2, she says, and points to the great advances that have been made in computer technology and software.
Other changes include advanced materials used in the aircraft’s surface treatment, making the aircraft more difficult to detect. Austin says 50 years of technological development are behind us.
Even the most advanced air defense system will struggle to detect a B-21 in mid-air, says the defense secretary.
Defense analysts also speculate that the aircraft can deceive radars by “disguising” itself as another object, and new propulsion technology will also be used.
Warden won’t say anything about the technologies used, but he does claim that the aircraft will have better stealth characteristics than its predecessor.
– When we talk about hard to notice, it’s very hard to notice. Warden says you can hear it, but you won’t see it.
To date, six aircraft are in production. The US Air Force plans to build 100 aircraft. It can be equipped with nuclear weapons and conventional bombs. By comparison, no more than 21 B-2s were ever built.
The B-52s developed in the early 1950s would continue in operational service for several decades in the United States.
Unknown price concerns
The US authorities’ lack of transparency about prices is worrying analysts. The Air Force previously indicated that the price per plane was $550 million in 2010. This corresponds to about $753 million today – or 7.4 billion kroner at today’s exchange rate.
But what the Pentagon is actually paying for in 2022 is unknown.
The total amount will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon will buy.
– Soon we will fly this plane, test it, and then go into production. Then we’ll build the bomber into a number that adapts to the strategic situation ahead, says Austin.
Warden says new hangars will also be built that adapt to size and complexity.
However, the unknown costs cause concern.
“It can be very challenging for us to do our usual analysis for a large program like this,” says Dan Grazier, who researches defense policy at the Project for the Independent Organization on Government Oversight (POGO).
It’s easy to say the B-21 is on track before it actually flies. The real problems are only discovered when one of these programs enters the trial phase. This is the point where the schedule drops, and costs really start to go up, he notes.
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