On December 2 Northrop Grumman unveiled the first prototype of the B-21 Raider intercontinental range strategic bomber, an aircraft which is expected to replace the U.S. Air Force’s fleets of B-1B and B-2 aircraft and potentially form entirely new bomber units. The bomber is the first to be unveiled in the United States or any Western country since 1988 when the B-2, also developed by Northrop Grumman, was first shown publicly at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The Raider was initially intended to make its first flight in 2021, although multiple delays have meant that this will not occur in 2023 possibly the same year as China’s rival next generation bomber, the H-20, makes its own first flight. While only 20 B-2 bombers were ever acquired by the U.S. Air Force, in part due to their serious performance issues particularly pertaining to maintenance requirements, at least 100 B-21s are expected to be purchased with some sources having indicated that over 200 may eventually join the fleet to also replace the B-52H bombers currently in service. The possibility of multiple variants of the aircraft being developed, including some dedicated to airborne early warning or even aerial refuelling operations, has also been raised.
Speaking at the unveiling Defence Secretary Loyd Austin stressed that the aircraft was “carefully designed to be the most maintainable bomber ever built,” which may have indicated that the Raider was designed with remedying the B-2’s notoriously high maintenance needs firmly in mind. These have forced B-2s to be housed in specialised weather controller hangers, limiting basing opportunities, seriously restricted sortie rates and imposed a high operational cost burden on the Air Force. The Raider, it was highlighted, was built with an open system architecture that makes it straightforward to modernise, with Secretary Austin adding that “the B-21’s edge will last for decades to come.” Regarding how it will operate in roles beyond delivering payloads, he added that: “The B-21 is multifunctional. I can handle anything from gathering intel to battle management… it will work seamlessly across domains and theatres and across the joint force.”
While the viability of the current bomber force has increasingly been brought to question against higher end adversaries, claims that the B-21 combines greater maintainability and vastly improved avionics and stealth could signal that it is indeed an ideal asset as the U.S. Military faces growing challenges to its primacy. Where the B-2 was developed as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, the B-21’s development occurred as China eclipsed the United States as a leading economy, spender on arms acquisitions, and researcher in key strategic technologies. The rapid modernisation of China’s nuclear forces and air defences, alongside to a lesser extent those of Russia and North Korea, combined with the deterioration of America’s own ground based nuclear deterrent, has made a robust intercontinental range nuclear bomber fleet appear particularly vital for American security interests.