Revealed: The Public Finally Gets to See the B-21 Stealth Bomber this Week
Some of the Northrop Grumman employees building the secret plane also worked on the B-2 bomber.
Tom Jones has spent a good portion of his career not being able to tell his family what he does at work. He recalls sitting at the dinner table one night 30-plus years ago, unable to share with his spouse that, just hours earlier, he was read into a classified military project. In the years that passed, Jones said, he’s grown used to not being able to provide details of what he does every day.
“I've been not able to talk about what I do at work for so much of my career, I guess I don't even really think about it that much anymore,” he said during an interview last week.
Now president of Northrop Grumman Aeronautics System, Jones has overseen one of the military’s most important, anticipated, and secretive U.S. military projects: the B-21 Raider stealth bomber. On Friday, inside a hangar in the California desert, he and the 8,000 others spread across 40 states who have been secretly building the Air Force’s new stealth bomber will finally get to show their family and friends what they’ve been working on the the past seven years.
“I think it's the first view of what's going to be a great capability for our country,“ Jones said.
The B-21 is different from other classified military programs in that its existence is openly acknowledged. Over the years, top U.S. Air Force officials have given crumbs of information about the plane. But aside from some benign conceptual images, relatively little is known about it.
And while the first plane will be shown to the public on Friday, no one should expect many more details. The Air Force has kept much of the effort a secret so that China, Russia, and others are not able to copy the B-21 design or come up with ways to shoot it down. The plane has been designed with a new generation of stealth technology to evade radar detection. It eventually will be able to carry nuclear or conventional bombs and fly with or without pilots.
But beyond that, it’s mostly a mystery. Northrop executives said the project’s classified status prevents them from describing the B-21 assembly line in Palmdale, California, where the roll-out will take place.
The plane to be unveiled on Friday is expected to fly for the first time next year, and five other aircraft are in various stages of assembly. Air Force leaders say the service plans to buy at least 100 of the bombers. The Pentagon’s 2023 budget request shows the Air Force plans to spend $19.1 billion on B-21 aircraft between fiscal 2023 and 2027, but the Air Force did not disclose how many aircraft that money will buy.
Northrop executives have described the bomber as the U.S. military’s first sixth-generation aircraft, surpassing the technology of its newest combat fighter, the F-35, of which the company builds the center fuselage.
“B-21 really kind of takes it [to] the next step as you're dealing with larger aircraft, better signatures, and the tolerances required to do all that,” Jones said.
The company has used digital engineering and advanced manufacturing to build the plane, which has allowed it to move much faster than historic military development projects, he said.
Digital engineering has allowed Northrop to build the first B-21 “as close to production-like as possible,” unlike traditional aircraft development projects, where companies made bespoke X-planes that were flight tested and then heavily modified before entering production.
“By being able to burn down a lot more risk digitally, we're able to take this step, which cuts years out of the overall development program and really wrings a lot of risk out,” Jones said. “Hopefully we can get started and up and running in production much more efficiently and effectively.”
Jones recalled that when he was a young engineer, the seasoned engineers were still using drafting machines to design systems, while their younger contemporaries were using computer-aided design software.
“Seeing that evolution and seeing the benefits that's brought into risk reduction and increased efficiencies has really been exciting,” he said. “As a nerd engineer, that development and pulling through, if you will, of digital technology is great.”
The digital technology also allows the Air Force to collaborate throughout the development of the plane.
“We're trying to use a B-21 as a model for how we want to go forward with other programs that are presently in the pursuit phase,” Jones said.
While he didn’t mention any programs by name, the Air Force’s next-generation fighter jet, called Next Generation Air Dominance, is one of those programs.
“I'm hoping as we go forward that future aircraft acquisitions will rely on a lot more high-fidelity, digital models, and emphasize fleshing out to production practices, because I think overall, that's probably going to be a better acquisition practice in the long run,” Jones said.
Some employees have been working on designing the new bomber for more than a decade. A small number of Northrop employees also worked on the B-2, the last stealth bomber designed by the company more than three decades ago.
And the B-21 production line never shut down throughout the pandemic.
“They didn't have the opportunity to work at home, either because of the classification or they were working in a factory—they were coming in every day, couldn't tell their families why they were coming in, just they have to go in when a lot of the rest of the world was able to work at home,” Jones said. “Working through all the turmoil of that and still successfully putting this aircraft together. I'm just so proud of the work that they've done, and the excitement on the manufacturing floor and engineering spaces is palpable. Like there's a lot of people that are looking forward to this.”