In a teaser ahead of its first flight later this year, the US Air Force has released two new images of its B-21 Raider nuclear stealth bomber that provide new insights into the highly-classified US$692-million aircraft’s design and capabilities.
On December 2, 2022, Northrop Grumman and the US Air Force gently lifted the lid on the top secret aircraft that will one day replace the American nuclear-armed bomber fleet. It was an invitation-only event, with the B-21 dramatically, though not clearly, lit and only one image released to the public.
Now, the Air Force has released two more images that were taken at the same time as the first. A close-up of the bomber’s canopy and a full shot from a higher angle, they provide us with some clues about the B-21’s design, which is still so tightly guarded that even its dimensions are a secret.
Designed with what the US government calls “unprecedented range,” the B-21 Raider is intended to be able to carry out long-range missions from US territory without the need for forward bases and, perhaps, with little need for in-flight refueling. This range is so long that the Australian government has been advised to purchase the B-21 to operate from secure bases in the south of the country, yet be able to strike distant targets with conventional weapons.
The other facts about the B-21 that the Air Force has admitted to is that, aside from long-range strike missions, it can be used for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, as well as for electronic attack, communications, and other functions. It also has a high degree of autonomy and AI that allows it to operate without a crew and as a control platform for drone swarms.
The new images confirm that the B-21 is an evolution of the B-2 Spirit bomber, combined with radical advances in stealth technology. The most obvious difference is the grayish white color of the new radar absorbent composite coating that is reported to be more effective and less fragile than the old coating.
The close up image shows that the coating is of a composite that looks more woven than assembled, with layers added like tape. This is particularly evident around the cockpit windows, which have a more curved shape than those on the B-2 for better scattering of reflected radar signals. The coating around the windows now covers all the joins and seams for even more stealth.
The upper angle image shows that the composite coating extends to the engine inlets. The engine nacelles are lower and blend more into the body, with the inlets contoured rather than sharply geometric, producing a smoother blended wing and fuselage. The engine itself is recessed well back from the inlet, likely to reduce the heat signature, and the nacelle fits more into the body.
Inside the inlet is what previously seemed to be part of the engine structure, but which is now revealed to be an inlet cover that is removable before flight. The tail can’t be seen clearly, nor can the engine exhausts, but the tail structure seems to be more integrated into the wing and body instead of the distinct sawtooth configuration of the B-2, though the view isn’t clear enough to say for sure. At the rear of the engines are some flat geometric structures that could be some sort of a port or satellite data link antenna arrays.
The Air Force plans to purchase at least 100 B-21s, with the first expected to go into service in 2027. The aircraft will replace the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers by 2040, and eventually the B-52 Stratofortress sometime in the 2050s.
Source: US Air Force