An artistic impression of the soon-to-be-launched B-21 bomber. Image: Northrop Grumman

The US plans to field soon the next-generation B-21 Raider stealth bomber, with the first of an initial batch of six fighters coming off the assembly line later this year.

Speaking at the 2022 Nuclear Deterrence Summit this month, Major General Jason Armagost stated that the new bomber is likely to fly in 2022, in line with previous statements by US Air Force officials.

He said that the “rollout will probably be some time this year”, though he did not give an exact date.

Armagost also added that the B-21’s development was accelerated using digital technologies, with digital models-based systems engineering to virtually design, build, and test key components before physically manufacturing them, and that digital technologies have been integrated into the bomber’s sustainment program.

The B-21 is a new high-tech bomber slated to replace or complement the US Air Force’s aging fleet of B-52s, B-1s, and B-2 bombers, and represents the first new US bomber design in 30 years.

As with its predecessors, it is designed to be long-range, highly survivable and capable of carrying a mix of conventional and nuclear ordnance and be a key part of the US nuclear triad.

US Air Force B-52H bombers over the Pacific Ocean during a training mission. The strategic bomber started service in 1955. Credit: USAF photo.

Apart from being a key asset in the US nuclear deterrent, the B-21 is part of a larger family of systems under development for conventional long-range strike, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack and communication. It has optionally manned capabilities and can employ various standoff and direct-attack munitions.

The B-21 is also meant to be a future-proof design, with open architecture to integrate future upgrades and modernization packages, allowing the aircraft to match evolving threats. The US Air Force has announced plans to acquire 100 units, while some defense analysts estimate that the service should acquire 200 units.

The development of the B-21 was necessitated by the need for new designs to update the US bomber fleet, improve enemy air defenses and shift to great power competition.

The B-52 which first entered service in 1955 remains the backbone of the US Air Force’s bomber fleet. While numerous upgrades such as electronic warfare systems, internal weapons bays, new munitions, engines, communications, and radars have kept the type continuously in service and probably into the 2050s, the need for a new platform cannot be understated.

While the B-1 was designed as a successor to the B-52, it never fully replaced the latter type in service. In contrast to the B-52’s role as a stratospheric bomber, the B-1 is designed to fly low and at supersonic speeds to get below the effective minimum range of enemy radar and air defenses.

However, due to heavy use in the Middle East as the only supersonic US bomber, the B-1 fleet deteriorated much faster than anticipated, with the fleet planned to be retired in 2036.

The B-2 bomber was introduced in the late 1980s as a stealth aircraft capable of penetrating the most heavily defended airspace and attacking critical targets deep in enemy territory. However, the end of the Cold War and high costs meant that only 21 B-2 units were built, with one lost in an accident in 2008.

Despite B-2 fleet upgrades over the years, including Defensive Management Sensors that enable it to locate and evade next-generation air defenses and new processors vastly more powerful than those the type initially possessed, the small fleet size hampers its operational availability.

Moreover, improvements in anti-aircraft defenses mean that existing bomber types may be more vulnerable than ever. The 1980s stealth technology and bomber doctrine used by the B-2 can now be defeated by upgraded air defenses and asymmetric warfare techniques, as shown by the 1999 shootdown of an F-117 stealth bomber over Serbia using a modified Soviet-era S-125 surface-to-air missile.

A rocket launches from an S-400 missile system at the Ashuluk military base in southern Russia during military drills. Photo: AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff

Air defenses have since improved considerably, with China’s HQ-9 and Russia’s S-400 claiming to be able to shoot down much newer US stealth aircraft such as the F-35.

That said, the B-21 will conceivably restore US bomber capabilities in a potential great power conflict with near-peer adversaries China and Russia.

The B-21 is designed to penetrate sophisticated air defenses deployed as part of adversaries’ anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. B-21s based at Guam could attack China’s military installations in the South China Sea, China’s naval vessels, DF-26 “carrier-killer” batteries, and perform overflights as a show of force in freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs).

B-21s could also be deployed to destroy advanced Russian air defenses such as the S-400 and S-500 or penetrate heavily defended airspace in Eastern Europe to target command and control centers, ammunition dumps, artillery and missile batteries, and troop and vehicle concentrations.