The Air Force Is Testing the First B-21 Raider at Its Secret Manufacturing Plant

  • The first B-21 Raider bomber is currently undergoing ground testing.
  • It’s taking place at Air Force Plant 42, a classified facility in California’s Antelope Valley desert.
  • At the same time, the civilian head of the Air Force is pushing for an unmanned long-range bomber, one that could fly alongside the B-21 or embark on particularly dangerous missions.

    The U.S. Air Force’s aging bomber fleet got not one, but two bits of good news this week. The first new B-21 Raider bomber is complete and has entered ground testing, paving the way for a first flight later this year. At the same time, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall says he wants an unmanned bomber that costs half as much as the B-21, one the service would send on its most dangerous missions.

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    Ground testing typically works to test and verify everything possible while a brand-new plane is still on the ground. It involves validating mechanical components—such as the flaps, rudders, ailerons, refueling probes, and landing gear—work correctly. It also involves making sure the various electromagnetic systems, such as radar, navigation systems, and communications, don’t interfere with one another.

    Software testing is increasingly part of the ground test process, particularly with an aircraft like the B-21. The bat-winged aircraft, like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, lacks a conventional aircraft shape and relies on Fly-By-Wire technology (FBW) to stay aloft; FBW is a flight-control system that uses computers to process pilots’ (or autopilot) inputs and send corresponding electrical signals to the flight control surface actuators. If the computer software that makes constant adjustments to the plane’s flight profile is buggy, an aircraft like the B-21 can’t even get off the ground.

    The B-21 is set to be revealed to the public later this year. Its first flight has been pushed back from December 2021 to sometime in mid-2022, but that’s a minor setback for such an ambitious program. Currently, there are six B-21s in various stages of production at the Air Force’s secret Plant 42 in Antelope Valley, California.

    A B-2A Spirit stealth bomber overflies the White House, July 4, 2020. The B-21 Raider will replace the B-2A in the late 2020s.

    Win McNameeGetty Images

    The B-21 will eventually replace the 62 B-1B Lancer bombers and 20 B-2A Spirit bombers that the Air Force currently operates, and will be capable of conducting both conventional attack and nuclear weapons delivery missions. The Air Force wants at least 100 B-21s, and ideally up to 200, as it becomes more and more likely that the service will have to face China and Russia in both conventional and nuclear war-fighting scenarios. The new bombers will be augmented by 76 1960s-era B-52H Stratofortress bombers that could serve another 30 years for a total of 90 years of service—with 100 years of continuous service as a distinct possibility.

    At the same time, Kendall has signaled he’s interested in an uncrewed long-range bomber, ideally one that costs half as much (or even less) than the B-21 ($713.6 million). Kendall, quoted in Air Force Magazine, says he also wants a stealthy drone capable of flying just as far, ensuring it could accompany a B-21 Raider into combat. If an unmanned drone can simply tag along with a B-21, mimicking its flight path while remaining a minimal distraction to the human crew, it could allow bombers to deliver many more munitions on target, or potentially strike more targets.

    bombers super bowl

    Today’s bomber force consists of (left to right) the B-1B Lancer, B-2A Spirit, and the B-52H Stratofortress.

    CHANDAN KHANNAGetty Images

    This could make it “attrittable,” meaning the Air Force could live with losing one in combat if the mission was important enough. For example, a B-21 and bomber drone on a combat mission might suddenly lose a critical appointment with an airborne refueling tanker. Instead of scrubbing the mission entirely, the crew might turn back to save the B-21 (and themselves), while sending the drone on a one-way mission. The result might be the loss of a $300 million aircraft, but if the target were important enough, it might be worth the loss.

    The B-21 Raider should begin flying nuclear deterrence missions starting in the late 2020s, with the bomber drone following shortly thereafter. The result will be a more flexible, stronger bomber force capable of delivering everything from “dumb” unguided iron bombs to hypersonic weapons—and thermonuclear weapons. Oh, and the B-52. The B-52, it seems, will be around forever.

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