The first of a series of new B-21 Raider strategic bombers has been built and handed over for ground testing. If everything goes well, and there have already been delays with the bomber project, then it will go on its first flight at the end of this year. The adoption of the B-21 into service is scheduled for 2026-2027, and in general, the US Air Force wants to acquire at least 149 bombers.
The assembly of the first flight model, which has now been submitted for testing, began in September 2019 at Northrop Grumman's secret plant No. 42 in Palmdale, California. Now five more of the same aircraft are being assembled there. In the future, the B-21 will replace the 62 B-1B Lancer bombers and 20 B-2A Spirit bombers that the Air Force currently has.
The characteristics of the bomber are kept in the strictest confidence. But some time ago, a satellite photograph of an aircraft in an uncovered mobile hangar became public. In external outlines, it was similar to the sketches of the B-21, which were published by Northrop Grumman. Fans immediately made simple arithmetic calculations and got approximate dimensions. The B-21 has a fuselage length of about 15 meters and a wingspan of 42 meters. This is significantly smaller than the B-2 Spirit - 21 and 52 meters, respectively.
The shape of the B-21 Raider is reminiscent of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, the "flying wing". Air intakes recessed into the wing and smoothly connected to the cockpit, the engines are located inside the airframe, no tail, thereby reducing radar visibility.
The bomber will be able to carry on board both conventional and nuclear weapons: Joint Directed Attack Munition (JDAM) guided munitions, AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) missiles, B83 and B61-12 atomic bombs, naval mines, drones and not yet existing hypersonic weapons.
In the United States, this bomber is called "the most advanced aircraft of the 21st century" and also the "killer" of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. The last definition arose after the disappointment that the Americans experienced with the B-2 bomber, also "the most advanced" and also "of the 21st century".
By the way, B-2 even went on a combat mission - on May 8, 1999, he bombed Belgrade. Recently, in an interview with The Popular Mechanics magazine, the crew commander of that same B-2, Major Tommy Bussier, said that he was very afraid. He was worried about the Serbian air defense, which was armed with some Soviet systems. Fortunately for Bussiere, the Serbs failed to take advantage of them, and he dropped 16 "smart bombs" on Belgrade and returned unharmed to the United States.
The Pentagon was encouraged by the success, but later it turned out that Russia had a S-400 system that sees the B-2 and can easily bring it down. In Washington, they decided not to spend money on a toy that has become useless. However, under pressure from the arms lobby, they still ordered 20 bombers instead of 132. The most expensive aircraft in the world, which is now decided to replace the B-21, cost the budget $ 44 billion, not counting maintenance costs.
The new B-21 was made more stealthy by changing the angles of the reflective surfaces and using new radio wave absorbing materials, made it smaller and cheaper than the B-2, reduced the bomb bay, but increased the range of possible deadly cargo options. They also decided to supplement the bomber with an unmanned wingman.
US Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall is an influential supporter of a drone to load on the B-21. He wants to provide strategic aviation with a drone that, he says, should cost at least half as much as a B-21, be just as stealthy, and follow its leader incessantly, imitating its flight path. Such a combination will increase the combat load and reconnaissance capabilities of the strike group, and if it is impossible to break through the enemy's air defense system with manned aircraft, throw drones to complete the task. “It’s cheaper to lose about $300 million,” says Kendall, “than $713.6 million, unless, of course, the goal is worthy of such a sacrifice.”
While the slave drone does not exist. Design work should begin in the next couple of years. The project is supposed to use all the developments obtained in the creation of other unmanned aircraft and systems with artificial intelligence. The Pentagon is eyeing the Skyborg program run by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Air Combat Evolution, owned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and even the Australian Airpower Teaming System project, which is designing a "faithful slave" drone.
In the meantime, Sancho Panza is in dreams, experts have calculated how much the first hundred B-21s will cost. In 2020 prices - $94 billion. This amount does not include development, operation and maintenance costs. Bloomberg reported last year that new estimates suggest that buying 100 bombers and operating them through 2050 could cost around $203 billion.
If an unmanned bomber proves to be an effective means of delivering bombs and missiles to a target, then, in principle, the Pentagon can save some money, if it wants, by reducing the number of more expensive and manned B-21s.