First Detailed Look at America’s New B-21 Stealth Bomber Reveals Key Information: Will It Fly Before Year’s End?

On September 12 the first detailed images of America’s new B-21 Raider next generation stealth bomber were released, with the publication coinciding with a speech at an Air & Space Forces Association conference by Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown. Although the first images of the B-21 were released in December showing the aircraft head on, these were in a very controlled environment and no images from other angles had been until now. Although the B-21 is still far from ready for entry into serial production, the images shown were of a prototype airframe at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California – a facility which belongs to the aircraft’s producer Northrop Grumman. The images are notably not recent, and according to the official website of the U.S. Military’s Defense Visual Information Distribution Service they were in fact taken on July 31 – days after the prototype was reported to have been powered on for the first time. Notable revelations from the new images include small and strangely angled side windows which appear designed to minimise the aircraft’s radar cross section – but which are expected to very significantly constrain visibility. The cockpit appears to be very small, significantly more confined than that of the B-2 bomber, which may have been considered more acceptable for this newer aircraft due to its much shorter range and thus the shorter periods for which pilots will need to remain inside. 

New images of the B-21 show that the aircraft’s air inlets are very deeply buried within the airframe, with the engine intakes and nacelle areas being deeply blended with one another as a further measure to reduce the bomber’s radar cross section. With the tailless bomber relying entirely on fly by wire computers, air data sensors visible along its lower and upper fuselage providing data critical to maintaining stable flight. The aircraft notably lacks the B-2’s complex sawtooth trailing edge planform and variable geometry ‘beaver tail’ in the center of its trailing edge, which were added later on in the design process at considerable extra cost to improve its performance at low altitudes – a decision made in response to concerns that advanced in Soviet air defence technologies would leave it vulnerable when operating at high altitudes. The B-21 is thus not expected to have the B-2’s advanced low altitude performance, although the usefulness of this remains highly questionable today. 

While the B-21 appears to provide a major improvement in stealth capabilities over the larger B-2 Spirit, which is scheduled for retirement in the early 2030s, it remains uncertain when the aircraft will be ready for operational service with the program already having faced considerable delays. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall stated at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces’s conference on September 11 regarding the aircraft’s possible first flight: “We’re still hopeful on having first flight this year. If I were to say it will, I would be making a very specific prediction. And I never do that about an acquisition program for something that hasn’t happened yet. Okay?..  We’re going through a number of things to get ready for first flight… There is always risk involved… Something can surprise you. So, absent any unexpected surprises… [and] surprises do with acquisition programs.” In June 2021 it was announced that the B-21’s first flight, which had been scheduled for later that year, would be delayed to 2022. Continued issues, however, pushed the date back to 2023, with the possibility of a first flight in 2024 having since emerged as a growing possibility. 

The delays faced by the B-21 have hardly been unprecedented, with all post-Cold War America combat aircraft having faced similar delays – most recently the relatively simple T-7 Red Hawk trainer. Significant delays have raised the possibility that the B-21’s direct Chinese rival the H-20 intercontinental range strategic bomber could begin to enter service significantly earlier, with China having consistently demonstrated over the last two decades an ability to operationalise aircraft much sooner after their first flights reflecting significant industrial advantages its defence sector benefits from. Its first fifth generation fighter the J-20, for example, entered service in 2017 just six years after its first demonstrator flight in 2011 – while its American counterparts the F-22 and F-35 both took over 15 years. With the preceding B-2 bomber notably having seen 100 of a planned 120 serial production airframes cancelled due to performance issues and cost overruns, whether the B-21 program will prove similarly problematic remains highly uncertain.