PALMDALE, Calif. — For the first time in a generation, the Air Force has shown off a new stealth bomber — a sleek, powerful weapon that the Air Force hopes will be so lethal that it will force China to Or Russia’s leaders rethink wars for decades to come.
The Air Force unveiled the Northrop Grumman-built B-21 Raider to the public Friday at a ceremony at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., attended by senior defense officials, Northrop P. Grumman CEO Kathy Worden, and a tribute to the legendary Doolittle bomber named after the raider.
“The audacity of the Doolittle Raider has inspired generations of American pilots,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at the ceremony, with the majestic aircraft looming behind him. “It is fitting that the next chapter of American airpower is named after them.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is deterrence the American way,” Austin said.
Families of some of the Doolittle Raiders and a group of Northrop Grumman employees attended the ceremony. Their mood is celebratory, as employees occasionally sing “America! America!” and cheer.
As dusk fell, a Northrop Grumman employee sang the national anthem as three bombers flew overhead—first a B-52 Stratofortress, then a B-1 Lancer, afterburner The room roared, and finally the B-2 Spirit bomber.
Dramatic music was played following Warden’s comments thanking the employees who designed and built the bomber. A pair of massive hangar doors slid open, and the B-21 rested under its massive canopy, bathed in mist and blue light.
The sheets fell to reveal the bomber, which was dragged to the edge of the hangar to the applause of the crowd.
The long-awaited debut of the B-21 marks a milestone in reshaping the Air Force’s increasingly dilapidated bomber fleet. It comes at a time when Russia is trying to conquer Ukraine, China’s views of Taiwan are raising concerns, and the U.S. military wants a highly public display as a sharp warning to U.S. adversaries.
If war broke out with China, the country’s recent military advances — especially air defense — would require the air force to have aircraft capable of sneaking into enemy territory without being detected. The Air Force hopes the B-21’s advanced stealth capabilities will allow it to perform this penetrating strike mission.
Air Force leaders envision the B-21 as the “backbone” of their future bomber force, and possibly a key element of the US arsenal for the next half-century. When the highly classified stealth bomber starts arriving at air bases like Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota later this century, it will be capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons, including standoff and direct attack munitions — — Estimated price tag for the plan at $203 billion.
Defense budget expert and managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights Todd Harrison told Defense News that the B-21 will be one of the two largest aircraft acquisitions in U.S. military history, second only to the F-35. Other major efforts include naval shipbuilding programs such as the Columbia- and Virginia-class submarines, and a next-generation nuclear missile known as the Sentinel, formerly known as Land-Based Strategic Deterrent.
The ceremony marked the Air Force’s first introduction of a new bomber in more than 30 years since the B-2 Ghost debuted at the same location in November 1988. Like its predecessor, the bat-shaped B-21 flies without a tail and with a minimal fuselage wing design, reducing drag and its signature on enemy radar.
If more B-21s become available, they will replace aging B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit bombers as the Air Force moves to a planned fleet of two bombers. The Air Force plans to retire all B-1s and B-2s in the early 2030s, leaving a fleet of at least 100 B-21s and Cold War-era B-52 Stratofortresses with improved engines.
For years, the Air Force has kept details of its new bomber under wraps — aside from the bomber’s appearance, that hasn’t changed with the public unveiling. In briefings before the ceremony, officials from the Air Force and Northrop Grumman provided no new information about its capabilities.
But in his speech, Austin touted the bomber’s capabilities, which he said would allow the United States to deter enemies and strike targets even in contested airspace.
The B-21’s range will allow the bomber to carry out its mission without being stationed in a theater of operations or requiring logistical support during deployment, Austin said. Its stealth capabilities mean that “even the most advanced air defenses will struggle to detect the B-21 in the air,” he added.
Its open systems architecture will make it highly adaptable, “capable of defending our nation with new weapons that have not even been manufactured.”
“The B-21 looked majestic,” Austin said. “But what’s under the frame and the space-age coating is even more impressive.”
Briefing reporters ahead of the ceremony, Warden said Northrop Grumman experimented with thousands of designs for the bomber in a digital environment before settling on a final version.
In an interview with Defense News in November, Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman’s aerospace systems division, touted the B-21 as the world’s first sixth-generation aircraft. He pointed to its advanced stealth capabilities, its open systems architecture designed for future modernization, and its use of data-sharing technologies as part of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort.
The B-21, designated 001 and the first flight test aircraft designated T1, was one of six Raiders in various stages of construction at Palmdale Air Force Plant 42. More to come, though Jones did not say when construction of the seventh B-21 might begin.
The first B-21 has undergone ground testing in recent months and undergoes final assembly and coating and paint applications before its debut.
Its next major step will be its first flight to Edwards Air Force Base in California, which is expected to take place sometime in 2023. Northrop Grumman said the date of the first flight will depend on the results of additional ground tests in the future.
These tests will include powering the Raider system on and off, running the engine, performing coast test runs, and other integration tests.
Once the Raider arrives at Edwards, the Air Force will conduct further flight tests.
This first bomber was a production aircraft, essentially the same as the one that would eventually be built by Northrop Grumman.
Jones said this is different from most new aircraft programs, where non-production representative aircraft typically make their first flights, leading to longer test cycles. He said the flight test of the B-21 using a production representative aircraft was intended to expedite the process.
Jones also said Northrop Grumman used digital testing extensively to “mitigate risk” and to identify and fix potential problems with the bomber in a virtual environment.
The Air Force said in an email to Defense News that the average acquisition unit cost of the B-21 is lower than its average acquisition unit cost, which is now $692 million in 2022 dollars, adjusted for inflation . This represents the total cost of all procurement funds, including flight costs, support equipment, training, spare parts and future modifications, the service said.
Bloomberg reported in 2021 that the B-21 is expected to cost $203 billion over 30 years.
Other contractors for the B-21 include engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, BAE Systems, Collins Aerospace, Janicki Industries, GKN Aerospace and Spirit Aerosystems.
The Air Force awarded the contract to build the B-21 (originally called the Long-Range Strike Bomber) to Northrop Grumman in 2015 and released the first renderings of the design the following year.
The project passed a critical design review in 2018. In March 2019, the U.S. Air Force announced that it had selected Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota as the first operational base for the B-21 bomber and its official training unit.
The B-21s will also be based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas.
Earlier this year, Ellsworth began construction on a 95,000-square-foot hangar to maintain the B-21’s stealth coating. It’s the first of about three dozen major projects Ellsworth is preparing for the Bomber’s arrival later this decade.
The B-21’s name brings to mind one of the most famous missions in Air Force history – the 1942 Doolittle Raid. On that mission, the lieutenant general led 80 airmen in the United States’ first counterattack against Japan after Pearl Harbor. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle flew 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers from an aircraft carrier to bomb Tokyo. The story of Doolittle’s Commandos boosted American morale and forced the Japanese to shift their forces.
In early 2016, the Air Force invited pilots to name the B-21, announcing the designation “Raider” later that year. The late Lt. Col. Richard Kerr, Doolittle’s lead bomber co-pilot, took the stage with former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James at the Air Force Association’s September 2016 meeting to unveil the name. Cole, who died in 2019, was 101 when he was revealed.
A Mitchell bomber was on display ahead of the ceremony, along with other aircraft including a B-2 and an F-35.
During a briefing before the ceremony, the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said the new bomber would continue in the tradition of the Doolittle Raiders.
“Think about the Doolittle Raiders and what they’re capable of,” Brown said. “Just a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, you put bombers on a carrier for the first time and attacked Japan.”
“That’s innovation,” Brown continued. “That spirit of innovation is now behind us.”
Stephen Losey is the air combat reporter for Defense News. He has previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times and the Pentagon, and special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to report on U.S. Air Force operations.