On Friday, the public finally got a glimpse of the Air Force’s next bomber, the B-21 Raider. Northrop Grumman, which manufactures it, unveiled the futuristic flying machine at a ceremony in Palmdale, California, on December 2. This is a stealth aircraft, meaning it was designed to have a minimal radar signature. It is also intended to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.
The new aircraft will eventually join a bomber fleet that currently consists of three different types of aircraft: legacy, non-stealth B-52s, supersonic B-1Bs, and the B-21’s most direct, B-2 flying wing. Ancestor.
Here’s what you need to know about the B-21 Raider.
A flashback to 1988
At the inauguration of the B-21, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said of the new aircraft, “21. He referred to it as “the first bomber of the century”. Indeed, among the bomber models it will eventually replace is the 1980s-era B-2 Spirit.
As Peter Westwick recounts in his history of low-observable aircraft in the United States, security, two aircraft manufacturers competed with each other to build the B-2. While Northrop had defeated Lockheed to build the stealth bomber, Lockheed had previously defeated Northrop when it came to creating the first stealth fighter, the F-117. Northrop signed the contract to build the B-2 in late 1981 and launched the vehicle a little over seven years later, in 1988.
The presentation event in 1988 had “at least 41 Air Force generals” and an audience of 2,000, Westwick wrote. “A tractor pulled the plane out of the hangar, the crowd went crazy, the press took photos, and then the tractor plane disappeared again,” he writes. It first flew in 1989.
[Related: The B-21 bomber won’t need a drone escort, thank you very much]
Today, the B-2 represents the smallest part of the US bomber fleet in numbers. “We just bought 21 of them,” says Todd Harrison, defensive analyst at Metrea Strategic Insights. “One crashed, one is in use for testing, and at any given time several will be in maintenance – so the truth is we have very few stealth bombers in our inventory and the only way to get more was to design and build a brand new bomber.”
When the B-21 flies, it will join the old group of bombers. Like the B-1, these planes “are getting really old and hard to keep in the air – they’re too expensive to fly and don’t have the capabilities we need in today’s bomber fleet.” and in the future,” says Harrison. B-52s date to the early 1960s; a B-52 pilot once said Popular Science that being in control of that plane feels like “flying in a museum.” If the B-52 is officially called Stratofortress, it is also called Stratosaurus. (One possible future scenario is that the bomber fleet would eventually become just two models: the B-52s and B-21 with the new engines.)
[Related: Inside a training mission with a B-52 bomber, the aircraft that will not die]
The view presented in the promotional video with the B-21 is the front view of the aircraft, a brief view of a futuristic aircraft. “They’re unlikely to explain the really interesting things about the B-21,” says Harrison. “The most interesting thing is what they couldn’t show us.” This includes internal and external attributes.
To disclose such an aircraft to the public represents a calculated decision to demonstrate the existence of a capability without revealing too much about it. “You want to disclose anything you think will deter Russia or China from doing things that might provoke us to war,” he says. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to show too much, because you don’t want to make it easy for your opponent to develop plans and technologies against your abilities.”
Indeed, the way Secretary of Defense Austin described the B-21 on Dec. “The B-21 looks imposing, but those under the frame and the space-age skins are even more impressive,” he said. He then talked about its range, stealth features, and other features in generalizations. (War Zone, a sister website to PopSci, has in-depth analysis of the aircraft here and interviewed pilots who would likely fly it for the first time.)
Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aeronautics and Space Studies, says the B-21 presentation he attended was “very carefully staged.”
[Related: The stealth helicopters used in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden are still cloaked in mystery]
“There were lots of lights on either side of the plane that shone right into the audience,” he recalls. “Camera angles were very carefully controlled, reporters were told what they could and could not do in terms of taking pictures, and of course the plane wasn’t fully deployed – half of it was still mostly in the hanger so people couldn’t see the tail part.”
“The single word you heard the most from all speakers during the presentation was ‘deterrence,'” adds Gunzinger. Part of achieving this is to signal to others that the US has a “credible capacity”, but at the same time “there must be enough uncertainty about the details – performance characteristics, etc – that they do not develop effective countermeasures.”
The B-21 launch concluded with Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrup Grumman, talking about the next big moment in aircraft. “The next time you see this plane, it will be in the air,” she said. “Now, let’s land this plane.”
And with that, the hanger was pushed back and the doors in front of it closed.
Watch the promotional video below.