The United States Air Force has unveiled the Northrup-Grumman B-21 Raider in a ceremony in Palmdale, California. The B-21 is said to be the first sixth-generation stealth bomber, leapfrogging a few fifth-generation aircraft, including the Lockheed-Martin F-22 and F-35 fighters. It’s reportedly more capable in numerous respects than any bomber in the world, though what exactly those capabilities are remains a mystery.
Launched in 2011, the B-21 was so designated because it’s the first new bomber of the 21st century. It’s been dubbed the Raider in honor of the Doolittle Raiders of World War II fame.
What we know about the plane is…well, very little. In jest, a well-known air defense expert and writer commented on his Facebook page that he would give his kingdom for a spec sheet. His kingdom is safe for now. According to a recent congressional report on the aircraft, the Raider’s “…speed, enabling systems, size, required stealth, structure, number and type of engines, projected weapons, and onboard sensors remain classified.”
As anti-aircraft technology has advanced, legacy bombers have become obsolete, that is, when they face off against adversaries who possess state-of-the-art anti-aircraft weaponry. The Boeing B-52, if you remember, is an active military bomber, and it first flew in 1952. It did just get a new engine and instrument upgrade, so it will be taking to the air for many years, likely at least a couple of decades, to come.
Even the costs of the program are secret, though each aircraft is expected to cost around three-quarters of a billion dollars, with the total program cost being more than $200 billion.
The B-21 Raider, which is similar in appearance to other stealthy bombers, well, the other stealthy bomber, the B-2, will be an intercontinental bomber capable of delivering either conventional or nuclear bombs.
Does its classification as a sixth-gen bomber give any clues to its capability? Sadly, no. Sixth-generation planes are a future class of aircraft—this one hasn’t flown yet—that are expected to incorporate even more advanced technologies than fifth-generation planes. These technologies may include advanced artificial intelligence, materials and manufacturing techniques, and advanced propulsion systems. However, since sixth-generation planes are just now emerging, it’s difficult to say exactly what capabilities they’ll have or how they’ll differ from fifth-generation planes. One thing we do know is that as aircraft have grown more capable, they’ve become incredibly expensive to develop and to build, so fewer and fewer of the latest generation of planes are emerging.
The Air Force is targeting next year for the first flight of the bomber.