The B-21 Raider is the first new American bomber aircraft in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is classified.
Defence analysts said the plane has been designed to break through and evade Chinese radars, air defence systems and release its payload of missiles and bombs on sensitive ground targets before flying back.
“The B-21’s edge will last for decades,” said defense secretary Lloyd Austin as the jet was unveiled for the first time publicly at an event on December 2 at the Plant 42 facility in Palmdale, California.
Weapon of deterrence
Far from being seen as an offensive weapon, the new aircraft is being hailed as the ultimate deterrence.
Judged to be more advanced than China’s and Russia’s under-development H-20 and PAK-DA stealth bombers, there is considerable consternation in Beijing and Moscow over the Raider’s capabilities.
Austin said the US is building a more lethal force as part of efforts to make sure China doesn’t dominate the Indo-Pacific region the way it intends to.
“China is the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences,” said Austin, adding: “So let me be clear — we’re not going to let that happen.”
Austin said the US would “sustain and sharpen war-fighting advantages” and bolster its force presence “to build a more lethal, mobile and distributed force posture”.
He cited the B-21 stealth bomber as a key element of its deterrence strategy.
Northrop Grumman, the company that developed the B-21 Raider, said the aircraft “has been designed as the lead component of a larger family of systems that will deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack and multi-domain networking capabilities”. This means getting battlefield information and sending them to friendly forces is a primary role, along with bombing and missiles, with both possibly being performed simultaneously.
In its latest report on China’s military strength, the US government said Beijing is still intent on gaining the capability to invade Taiwan by 2027 and become the world’s most powerful military by 2049.
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its gains in hypersonics, cyber warfare and space capabilities present “the most consequential and systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said this week in its annual China report.
“We needed a new bomber for the 21st Century that would allow us to take on much more complicated threats, like the threats that we fear we would one day face from China and Russia,” said Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James.
‘Not just another plane‘
As the US looks to counter China, Austin outlined other measures, saying the Pentagon had sharpened its focus on the Indo-Pacific as the primary theater of operations, including by pushing to be able to mobilise troops more quickly and investing in military construction and logistics.
“This isn’t just another airplane,” Austin had said as the B-21 Raider was unveiled: “It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s efforts to modernise all three legs of its nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it shifts from the counterterrorism campaigns of recent decades to meet China’s rapid military modernization.
“Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky,” said Austin.
Other advances likely include new ways to control electronic emissions, so the bomber could spoof adversary radars and disguise itself as another object, and use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy either nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and can be used with or without a human crew.
Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the Raider’s relatively quick development: The bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have taken decades.
The B-21 Raider won’t make its first flight until 2023 and is likely to enter operations in 2026 or 2027.
(With inputs from agencies)