24 May 2024

US Air Force reveals first pics of secretive new stealth bomber in flight

| Andrew McLaughlin
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USAF B-21 Raider

The first official in-flight photo of the new B-21 Raider bomber. Photo: USAF.

The veil of secrecy surrounding the US Air Force’s newest stealth bomber is slowly being raised, with the latest revelation being the release of the first official in-flight images of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider.

The B-21 made its first official flight last November from the Northrop Grumman production site at Palmdale north of Los Angeles, to the nearby US Air Force test facility at Edwards Air Force Base. But the only records of that flight are from civilian photographers and videographers who filmed the takeoff from outside of Palmdale’s heavily-patrolled fence line.

Although the B-21 resembles the ‘flying wing’ configuration of the original stealth bomber – the more familiar but still exotic B-2A Spirit – many of the details make it a generational improvement over its forebear.

First revealed in a restricted rollout in December 2022, the B-21 appears to be about 20 per cent smaller than the B-2A, but has much smoother transitions between the fuselage and wing, and smaller engine intakes and exhausts.


Compare the B-21 title pic with the design with the B-2A Spirit. The similarity is obvious, although the devil is in the detail. Photo: USAF.

The dimensions of the B-21 haven’t been revealed, nor have any details about what engines it uses, nor its operational range or payload capacity. Experts have suggested the B-21 uses two engines similar to those of the F135 used by the Lockheed martin F-35 fighter, but without afterburning. They also suggest a similar range to the B-2A of about 10,000km, but with a smaller payload of conventional and nuclear weapons.

Some aerospace observers believe the B-21 was derived from another secret project, the US Air Force’s P-ISR program to develop a stealthy long-range uncrewed reconnaissance aircraft. Rumoured to be designated the RQ-180, a number of these aircraft – also built by Northrop Grumman – are reported to have been flying for about a decade out of Edwards AFB, Beale AFB inland from San Francisco, and from Guam in the western Pacific.

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The US Air Force revealed a couple of more photos of the B-21 on the ground late last year before its first flight, but nothing else until this week. The three photos released show the aircraft from head-on in a hanger, taking off from side on, and in flight with the landing gear retracted at altitude.

The light grey – almost white colour of the aircraft is effective at hiding panel joins and other detailed features, and a lack of special metals around the engine exhaust suggests the exhaust gasses may be cooled before being expelled from the aircraft.

USAF B-21 Raider

The B-21 on the ramp at Edwards AFB in California. Photo: USAF.

The aircraft is believed to have had at least three test flights to date, all of which are being conducted by the US Air Force’s 412th Test Wing at Edwards. While the aircraft is in test, an additional five developmental B-21s are in production at Palmdale, while a contract for an undetermined number of low rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft was awarded to Northrop Grumman in January 2024.

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On 8 May, Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Andrew Hunter told the US Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) that B-21 flight testing is on track and schedule.

“We are in the flight test program, the flight test program is proceeding well,” he told the SASC.

“It is doing what flight test programs are designed to do, which is helping us learn about the unique characteristics of this platform, but in a very, very effective way.”

USAF B-21 Raider

The B-21 takes off from Edwards for a test flight. Photo: USAF.

The US Air Force currently has a requirement for 100 B-21s to replace its 19 B-2As and about 70 B-1B Lancer bombers from 2028.

In Australia, there have been a few defence analysts who have suggested the Royal Australian Air Force look to acquire a squadron of B-21s, and it has even been rumoured the air force had a small team dedicated to exploring the possibility.

Such an exquisite capability – like the Navy’s forthcoming nuclear-powered submarines – would be extremely expensive and very niche one for such a small air force, but would certainly place the RAAF in an elite group.

But with the Defence budget already stretched by new ships and submarines, and defence recruitment and retention goals continuing to be missed, it’s hard to see how it could possibly be justified.

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