The B-21 Raider is unveiled during a ceremony at the Northrop Grumman facility in Palmdale, California, on December 2, 2022 – Copyright AFP/File Phill Magakoe
Frederic J. Brown with W.G. Dunlop in Washington
The United States on Friday unveiled the B-21 Raider, a high-tech stealth bomber that can carry nuclear and conventional weapons and is designed to fly without a crew on board.
The cleverly choreographed ceremony at B-21 maker Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California, facility opened with the US national anthem as older bombers roared over a crowd that included top US officials.
Dramatic music played and lights flashed as the doors to a hangar holding the new plane slowly opened, and the crowd cheered as the fabric covering it was pulled back to reveal a sleek gray bomber that’s on track to cost nearly $700 million. dollars per plane.
“The B-21 Raider is the first strategic bomber in more than three decades. It is a testament to America’s enduring advantages in ingenuity and innovation,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in remarks at the ceremony.
Many details of the plane are being kept under wraps, but the plane will offer significant advances over existing bombers in the US fleet, which Austin highlighted in his remarks.
He praised its range: “no other long-range bomber can match its efficiency” and its durability, saying that it is “designed to be the most maintainable bomber ever built”.
Like the F-22 and F-35 warplanes, the B-21 features stealth technology, which minimizes an aircraft’s signature through its shape and the materials it’s built from, making it more difficult for adversaries detect it.
“Fifty years of advances in low-observability technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will have a hard time spotting the B-21 in the sky.”
The plane is also built with “open system architecture,” allowing for the addition of “new weapons that have not yet been invented,” he said.
Amy Nelson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, told AFP ahead of the presentation that the B-21 is “designed to evolve.”
– ‘US Air Power’ –
“The ‘open architecture’ allows for future integration of improved software (including for autonomy) so that the aircraft does not become obsolete as quickly,” he said.
“The B-21 is much more elegant than its predecessors, truly modern. Not only is it dual-capable (unlike the B-2), which means it can launch nuclear or conventional weapons missiles, but it can also launch short-range and long-range missiles,” Nelson said.
No mention was made during the ceremony of the plane’s potential for unmanned flights. US Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told AFP that the plane is “envisioned for the possibility, but the decision to fly without a crew has not been made.”
The first flight of a B-21, “the backbone of our future bomber force,” is expected to take place next year, and the Air Force plans to purchase at least 100 aircraft, Stefanek said.
Northrop Grumman said six of the planes are currently in different stages of assembly and testing at its Palmdale facility.
The bomber will be a key piece of the US “nuclear triad”, which consists of weapons that can be launched from land, air and sea.
“For nuclear deterrence, the bomber fleet provides flexibility to the US nuclear posture and redundancy should any of the other stages fail,” Nelson said.
The “Raider” part of the aircraft’s name honors the 1942 American bomber raid on Tokyo led by then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle, the first American attack on the homeland of Japan after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the previous year. .
“On a cold, rainy April morning four months after Pearl Harbor, 16 US Army bomber planes took off from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific,” Austin said.
“They flew more than 650 miles to attack distant enemy targets, and the Doolittle Raiders, as they became known, demonstrated the strength and range of American air power,” he said.