The B-21 Raider, the first sixth-generation aircraft, can penetrate the toughest defenses anywhere in the world.

The B-21 “Raider” bomber was unveiled in Palmdale, California, on early December 2. With a range of 9,600 kilometers and a payload of about 10 tons, it is capable of fighting China and staying out of the range of its missiles. 

A hallmark of America’s unrivaled lead in stealth aviation is a frontal view of the plane — though that’s the only angle revealed.

The thin air intakes are the biggest indicator of the engine and material technology employed by the aircraft. Large air intakes increase the chances of radar waves bouncing off the aircraft because it has more surfaces to reflect off. 

The B-21 is designed to be even stealthier than the B-2, which is said to look no bigger than a tennis ball on a radar screen, while the B-21 is said to be omnidirectional/omniband stealthy. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. “50 years of advancements in low-observability technology have been baked into this aircraft. Even the most sophisticated air defenses will have difficulty spotting a B-21 in the sky.”

The engine air intake of the American B-2 (pictured) is more significant than that of the B-21. It is well known that the B-21 Raider was developed as a subsonic aircraft, not for the tight maneuvers of a fighter jet. 

Its debut, and eventual deployment, will be the first credible tool against America’s own vast logistical, technological, and doctrinal Weaknesses before confronting China in the Western Pacific.

Information made available to the public includes the estimated cost of the aircraft ($700 million), engine manufacturer (Platt & Whitney, presumably the F135, like the F-35), and payload (conventional and nuclear). Top speed, ceiling, and range are all classified, although the Pentagon allows it “optional crewing,” and it wants 100 bombers.

The aircraft’s color scheme is white, without the special sharp-edged and jagged stealth patterns seen on the B-2. Whether this is the final paint scheme is still being determined.

But what is certain is that Northrop has worked hard to move away from the expensive radar-coating paint and materials whose wear and tear often keeps many B-2s in hangars. 

And it had to be housed in a large, air-conditioned hangar to keep the electronics in its cockpit from burning out.

The B-21 is the first part of a $10 trillion overhaul of the US nuclear deterrent — an upgrade that will include new nuclear submarines (Columbia class) and land-based missiles (Sentinel missiles) — and represents a counterterrorism effort from Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

The rapid shift from the aircraft and cruise missiles needed for the movement to weapons capable of meeting China’s military modernization.

There have been calls for 150-200 or so to be built, and this stage is still a long one. Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Vaden proposed the standard “robust ground testing and first flight (scheduled for 2023)” phase.

It’s likely to take at least two years, and it will see massive tweaks and revisions to finalize the series-production model.

But Northrop claims this has also been addressed through a “digital twin” approach, where an exact digital replica has been created to envision and study the impact of various technological tweaks. 

Combined with its “open architecture” design, the upgrade process is said to be faster and equally efficient.

The aircraft will cost $203 billion to develop, operate and acquire 100 aircraft over 30 years, according to estimates provided to Bloomberg by the US Air Force (USAF).

 Meanwhile, the estimated unit cost remains below the $550 million target (but that’s in 2010. In other news, the Air Force said in an email to Defense News that the B-21 remained at its average Procurement unit costs, adjusted for inflation, are now $692 million (2022 dollars). To make a difference, it all depends on how quickly Northrop can serialize and what changes are made.

What do we know so far?

Two days before Northrop Grumman unveiled the B-21 Raider; it revealed it to be a deeply penetrating, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR)-focused bombing and electronic attack platform.

Describing it as a sixth-generation aircraft, the company has ditched the “Block” approach for future upgrades. “Digital twins” and “digital engineering” industrial manufacturing processes bring their own cost-saving advantages.

Northrop said the B-21 will rely on “external support platforms or systems.” Whether these were escape planes, bomber launchers, satellites, or other technology is unclear.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently announced shelving plans to develop a dedicated autonomous, remotely coordinated combat aircraft (CCA, or ‘loyal wingman’) for the B-21.

This loyal wingman originally planned to spend 300 million dollars, which is equivalent to half a B-21…it is too expensive.

These planes were meant to escape the B-21 deep into enemy territory. But the bombers would still launch decoys, jammers, or intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) drones.

The aircraft is designed in a modular, open architecture framework to allow for “rapid upgrades,” ditching the “block (batch) upgrade” approach.

 The B-21 uses agile software development, advanced manufacturing techniques, and digital engineering tools to help mitigate production risk. Whether this means a 3D printing process is unclear, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

The Ranger “will provide the Air Force with long range, high survivability, and mission payload flexibility. The B-21 will penetrate the toughest defenses and deliver precision strikes around the world.”

Northrop Grumman calls the B-21 the “backbone of America’s future airpower” with “advanced integration of data, sensors, and weapons” capable of delivering conventional and nuclear payloads and “extensive stand-off combined with direct attack munitions.”

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