Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking in front of the hangar, said the aircraft is evidence of the Defense Department’s long-standing commitment to developing advanced capabilities that will “strengthen America’s ability to deter aggression today and in the future.” The stealth aircraft, he said, has “50 years of advances in low-observability technology” that make it difficult for “the most sophisticated air-defense systems” to detect the B-21 in the air.
“The B-21 looks stuffy,” Austin said. “But the ones under the law and the space-age coatings are still interesting.”
Austin added that American defense is rooted in deterrence, and the development of the B-21 once again serves as a symbol.
“We make it clear again to any potential adversary: the risks and costs of occupation far outweigh any conceivable gains,” Austin said.
The program is expected to cost at least $80 billion, with the Air Force seeking at least 100 aircraft. It marks the US military’s first flight of so-called sixth-generation technology, relying on advanced artificial intelligence, computer networking and data fusion to slip in and out of enemy airspace as they carry out long-range bombing missions. The Air Force is investigating whether the B-21 can be flown remotely, though that could happen years after the first flight.
While senior U.S. defense officials and company executives are celebrating its progress, much of the plan remains classified. Media attending the event here in Palmdale must follow basic rules, including banning cellphones inside the viewing area and restrictions on how visual journalists can photograph the aircraft.
Company officials said there are six prototypes of the P-21. The first test flight is expected next year.
For now, the Raider is in a “ground test” phase, with Air Force and Northrop Grumman officials conducting stress tests, evaluating the use of its radar-deflecting paint and exploring basic functions such as taxiing, Northrop Grumman officials said.
With aircraft parts coming from 40 states, more than 8,000 people are working on aspects of the project.
The Pentagon wants to replace the aging B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer bombers with the Raider in the 2040s. The decades-old B-52 bombers may also be replaced by the B-21 in the coming years. The event, which was released on Friday, included flyovers of three aging bombers.
As recently as 2006, the Department of Defense believed that existing bombers could be serviced until 2037. But the Pentagon began exploring alternatives over the next decade, launching a contract competition for a new long-range bomber in 2014.
The U.S. military has for years faced cost issues and delays in developing other key weapons systems, including the advanced F-35 fighter jet that could be paired with the B-21 in future operations.
Air Force and company officials said in a panel discussion with reporters Friday that even as the cost per replica continues to rise, the program continues to meet the service’s cost-effectiveness requirements. In 2010, the service said it believed each plane would cost about $550 million. According to a Congressional Research Service report released last year, the cost rose to $639 million in 2019, and the cost is expected to continue rising.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown told reporters in Palmdale that the development of the B-21 was the result of a collaboration between the service and Northrop Grumman. He noted that the plane’s Raider nickname was a nod to the Doolittle Raiders, American service members who carried out a long, daring bombing raid on Japan in April 1942, just months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii drew the United States into World War I. II.
“That spirit of innovation is now sitting behind us,” Brown said, speaking in the hangar before the launch event as the B-21 sat under a mantle.
Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Cathy Wharton said Friday that the company iterated through thousands of versions of the plane before choosing a design. Some of the company’s testing and development happens digitally before the company builds the hardware, keeping costs down.
“In many ways, we’re taking technology from the future and bringing it into the here and now on this plane,” Wharton said.
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