On Friday night, the US Department of Defense (DOD) finally unveiled its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider. The new aircraft was revealed at Northrop Grumman’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin presented the B-21 to an audience of six hundred VIPs and two thousand Northrop Grumman employees.
The new stealth bomber is capable of carrying nuclear and conventional weapons. It is expected to enter service in 2026 or 2027 and will complement and eventually replace the existing fleet of strategic stealth bombers owned by the United States.
The B-21 Raider’s capabilities
Austin spoke at length about the new stealth bomber’s capabilities. “The B-21 looks imposing but what’s under the frame and the space age coatings is even more impressive,” he said.
“Let’s talk about the B-21’s range,” the Defense Secretary continued. “No other long-range bomber can match its efficiency. It won’t need to be based in theater. It won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk.”
“Fifty years of advances in low observable technology have gone into this aircraft,” he said. “And even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky.”
.@SecDef: [The @USAirForce’s B-21 Raider is] proof of the Department’s long-term commitment to building advanced capabilities that will fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future. pic.twitter.com/93ahmw90Ar
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) December 3, 2022
According to the US Air Force (USAF), the B-21 will be “nuclear capable and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations.” The aircraft will be capable of long-range strikes, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack, communication, and other capabilities.
The bomber has also been designed with future modernization programs in mind. Aircraft like the F-16 have been flying since the 1970s, but upgrade packages have enabled them to remain operational.
According to USAF, the B-21 has been “designed with open systems architecture to reduce integration risk and enable competition for future modernization efforts to allow for the aircraft to evolve as the threat environment changes.”
During the plane’s presentation on Friday, Austin said, “This isn’t just another airplane. It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love.”
The B-21 is set to become operational during a time of heightened geostrategic competition. The US military is currently shifting its focus from counterterrorism to peer-to-peer conflict with potential adversaries like China or Russia.
Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, US officials are concerned that Moscow might launch a tactical nuclear strike against Kyiv. Russian and American nuclear doctrine is fundamentally different, making it difficult for strategists in Washington to predict Moscow’s next move. Maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent is a key part of the US strategy for engaging with Russia.
Meanwhile, China has emerged as the most direct threat to US hegemony. Anxiety has been steadily rising in Washington that China might invade Taiwan. Moreover, Beijing’s nuclear capabilities have expanded considerably.
The DOD’s annual report on China identified Beijing as “the only competitor with the intent and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order.” The report highlighted China’s new H-6N nuclear-capable bomber as an important evolution in China’s nuclear weapon capabilities.
The new B-21 stealth bomber is part of a broader strategy the US is employing to update all three arms of its nuclear triad. Whilst the B-21 will add muscle to US strategic bomber capabilities, programs to modernize land-launched nuclear missiles and nuclear-missile-armed submarines are also taking place.